Monday, March 28, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Zardoz

Zardoz DVD cover and Amazon link
I’m not sure what this says about my personality, but often when there’s a movie about which it’s said “You’ll either love it or hate it”, I will instead come down nearer the middle. Works like these tend to have very obvious flaws but also very clear strengths, and while I’m almost never at the absolute median point, it’s nice to be able to see both sides.

Zardoz is a movie that invites such responses, because it is gorgeous and stately while also being goofy as hell and, worse, pretentious as fuck. In short, it’s a John Boorman movie. Of the many, many dystopian futures predicted in 1970s science fiction, none is quite so unusual as what he’s presented here, in an elaborate fable about mortality, civilization, and testosterone. It’s confusing and strange and sometimes slow, but also thoughtful and compelling both in its concepts and its presentation. It’s basically what would happen if an art filmmaker adapted a cheap postapocalyptic dime novel from one of the smuttier newsagents.

Zardoz is the god of the wastelands, a giant floating stone head who commands bands of roving Exterminators to kill the Brutals who populate the Earth, leading them with the now-infamous cry, “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” Zed (Sean Connery), one of the more inquisitive Exterminators, hides inside the stone head and finds it taking him to the Vortex, a paradise zone inhabited by the Immortals- the elite scientists and aristocrats who survived the apocalypse by walling themselves off and discovering the secret of eternal life. Ages of eternal bliss have made them decadent, impotent, and largely bored, and while the wise Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) advises that the brute be killed, they want him around in hopes that they can learn a few things, including how to make their men potent again. The increasingly cynical Friend (John Alderton), however, has a more subversive and ambitious plan: he thinks Zed can discover how to make them all mortal again, so that they can finally get around to dying.

Though an original creation of John Boorman’s crazed imagination, Zardoz plays like it could be an adaptation of a book. It has many of the earmarks of written postapocalyptic sci-fi, from a virile alpha-male barbarian protagonist to a society written as clear commentary on modern decadence / sterility / whatever-issue-is-bugging-the-writer-at-the-time, with an emphasis on matters sexual. It’s actually a surprisingly well-thought-out and coherent society that only requires a little handwaving as to how immortality was uncovered. Zardoz’s message of death makes sense as the Immortals’ attempt to keep the Brutal population in check, and ironically it’s when they change their mind and Zardoz tells them to use the Brutals for slave labor to grow food instead that Zed and other exterminators rebel. The Immortals are all linked by a kind of psychic network, those who meet with hazard are regrown, and punishment is doled out via forced aging. The Vortex is not quite a dystopia, but cracks are appearing, and Zed’s influence precipitates more violence and decay, as though it were inevitable.

The film’s gender politics are, frankly, I don’t even know. Zed is in some ways the ultimate image of what masculinity was supposed to be in the 1970s; if the fashion industry still existed he would no doubt be in menswear catalogs. There’s a definite contrast between the hyper-manly Connery and the more delicate males of the Vortex, which may be an early example of the fear-of-emasculation crap that rears its head whenever someone discovers that not all men like football, but unlike many postapoc barbarians, Zed doesn’t see bending prideful women into place as a concern; indeed, it’s in Consuella’s increasing aggression and bloodthirst that she starts to come to Zed’s level, and soon just about everyone is finding some way to devolve. The ultimate theme is that death is necessary for life to have meaning, and in some ways the story is the collision of two unbalanced societies, one locked in immortality and another valuing death over all.

Boorman made this film for around one million dollars, and it looks incredible for that amount. Zardoz itself is the finest effect; the visual of a fearsome stone head slowly gliding through the air is indelible, and it’s frequently accompanied by Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (the one that was used in The King’s Speech a lot) for extra atmosphere. Both the Vortex and the brute lands beyond look very convincing, and while the costuming is odd at best, it’s also memorable.

That phrasing could equally well apply to Zardoz as a whole, a film that sticks in the mind whether you want it to or not. As with many of Boorman’s films, not all of the action makes objective sense, it moves quite slowly at times, and the visuals straddle the line between gorgeous and silly right up until the end. But it has power, and beauty, and while it’s not the clearest or most coherent work of social criticism there is, it is provocative. A strange spectacle such as this bears watching at least once.

Written and Directed by John Boorman

Grade: B

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