January 18, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Zardoz

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Zardoz (1974)
Written and directed by John Boorman

I've said it before and I'll say it again: God bless 1970s cinema, and God bless that it eventually came to an end. And that's because when you combine a quickly-changing society, a sudden drop of artificial public morality and censorship codes, and a billion dollars of Hollywood money under a free-market capitalist system of the arts, you're simply bound to come up with explosive results, gems and crap and crappy gems and gemful crap and every other combination you want to come up with. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, to quote a fellow snotty essayist who's infinitely better than me, a decade that saw timeless classics mixed in with cutting-edge trendsetters, mixed in with inexorable turds. And that's the best reason to revisit '70s cinema too, when all is said and done; because it was the last time in American history when people actually took crazy chances in big-budget films, the last period when a summer blockbuster could at least in theory be a wildly experimental and controversial film as well.


And wow, you don't find much better an example of what I'm talking about than John Boorman's infamously loony 1974 stoner midnight classic Zardoz, a trippy science-fiction tale as only a pretentious visionary genius at the apex of the counterculture era could tell it. It is an...unexplainable film, utterly unexplainable as to how it could attract such money and stars, which of course is what has made it a permanent fixture of the cult community since its original release; this is the man, after all, who was to also eventually give us the similarly freaky '70s hippie epic Exorcist II: The Heretic, not to mention the sex-and-blood-drenched King Arthur adaptation Excalibur of the early '80s. It is brilliant and awful, heady and idiotic, much like a lot of other '70s science-fiction, this fanboy has to guiltily admit (you know, all that endless Zelazny and Heinlein and LeGuin stuff from those years); a project where you can see the genius behind the underlying concepts, but must also acknowledge that something horribly wrong happened along the way to the completed film. It is truly a movie that could've only been made in the '70s -- a movie which would be pointless to remake, because there is literally no way to remake it, not using the same caliber of stars that the original had nor the relatively super-high budget. It's for all these reasons that I ultimately recommend that you watch it, even though you're going to want to kick my ass afterwards for doing so.

Okay, so should we just get the most obvious thing out of the way first? Yes, all right, let's get the most obvious thing out of the way first:


There. There's a scary-hairy middle-aged Sean Connery in a red diaper. Welcome to '70s cinema, chummmmmm...p. And indeed, as this hopefully establishes quite quickly, there's a reason that this movie remains a favorite among bored undergrads in the middle of the night while hopped up on controlled substances; it is a truly ridiculous movie at points, one where you're left simply shaking your head at the question of why such respected actors as Connery and Charlotte Rampling signed on in the first place, much less agreed to appear in such costumes. But then you start thinking about other films from the '70s, and like I said, you start realizing how a movie like this could get made in the way it did; because in the '70s, all bets were off in the arts, with all previous answers about what made something "good" now thrown out the window, and with it being unfashionable to try to come up with new answers. Instead, everyone was supposed to question things during the '70s in the arts, question everything at every time; the more new theories that could be thrown out for public inspection, the more wacky experiments and newness for the sake of newness, the better you supposedly were and the more you were supposedly fulfilling your role as "artist" in the first place.


Now enter John Boorman, a middle-aged Hollywood vet already by then, who had just come off the surprising success of a harrowing adaptation of the redneck-thriller novel Deliverance just two years previous. When all is said and done, in fact, this was one of the only traditional things left from the old film system that executives could still rely on in the '70s, that directors who do a good job in the past are likely to do a good job again in the future; it's what led these executives to basically just throw money at such proven directors like Boorman in those years, no matter what crazy freaking ideas he was seemingly pulling out of his ass. Hey, that's what people want, I imagine these executives saying while shrugging to each other; better to hand a million dollars to someone like Boorman who at least has proven he can be responsible with it, unlike a drugged-out nutjob like Dennis Hopper who in those same years ran off to South America with a studio's million dollars and blew it all.


And indeed, when you first take a look at the storyline of Zardoz, you're left with a slight befuddlement and an urge to mutter, "...da f--k?," a script you can just imagine a whole table full of movie execs in the '70s sorta frowning at while reading and then eventually just saying, "Here, here's the check, just...go. Just go." Ultimately a post-apocalyptic tale, the film tells the story of two far-future human societies left on Earth, starting with the much more populous "Brutals" who live out in the radioactive wilds of a war-ravaged planet. It is an utterly spartan society, one that has basically devolved back into slavery, barbarism, and the kind of bares-bones existence we usually associate with the Dark Age; a society ruled by extra-cruel overseers called the "Exterminators" (or "the Chosen," of which Connery is one), who receive guns on a regular basis from a giant floating stone head they worship as a god, and who in an effort to curb the population has taught them that the most holy law of all is, "The gun is good! The penis is evil!"


"Wait, Pettus, wait," I hear you saying. "Excuse me just a moment. I think I took too long a pull on that bong a minute ago; did I really hear you right?" Oh yeah, you heard me right; behold the trainwreck-like beauty which is Zardoz, and the reason your smarter and hipper friends are constantly recommending that you finally see it yourself. Because it is simply over the top, just insanely over the top like an absurdist play can sometimes get, just without any conscious acknowledgment by Boorman himself that anything you're seeing is over the top at all. It is the ultimate example, in fact, of something utterly ridiculous being presented with not a single tongue in cheek but rather an utterly straight face, a project with a clear earnestness that baffles even more in the face of its sometimes eye-rolling details. Witness the secret pockets of an enlightened humanity called the "Eternals," hiding from the more numerous radioactive refugees and ultimately the ones providing the guns and giant stone head! Thrill at their mysterious attempts to sexually arouse the captive savage Connery, seeing that in their own enlightened times, one thing the Eternals have gotten rid of is sexual procreation and therefore sexual desire! Marvel at this being the perfect excuse for Boorman to shoot endless scenes of hot '70s British topless chicks on horseback!!!


It is truly a sight to behold, Zardoz is, and utterly lives up to the midnight-madness hype it's garnered over the decades; a movie all you cultists should definitely see at some point before you die, hopefully while shoveling down popcorn in a dark theatre while taking swigs off the liquor you and your buddies snuck in, shaking your head in delight that a day once existed where movies like this could even get made. It's a national freaking treasure, I'm telling you, precisely because it is so godd-mn awful; a testament to everything both right and wrong about '70s cinema, everything right and wrong about underground sensibilities suddenly pervading the mainstream. It gets a big recommendation from me, but only if you're prepared to appreciate it in all its silly finery.

Out of 10:
Writing: 7.9
Acting: 5.3
Directing: 4.4
Cinematography: 7.2
Overall: 6.9, or 9.9 for lovers of cult films

Random notes:
--Writer and director John Boorman makes a cameo in the film; he plays the farmer slave who passes out from exhaustion, and is shot in the head by Connery's character.

--To help keep costs down on this production, Connery drove himself to the set and back.

--The exterior shots at the beginning of the film were shot in Boorman's actual backyard in Ireland.

--And finally, it was the star of Boorman's previous film Deliverance who was supposed to star in this, Burt Reynolds; but he had to bow out at the last minute because of illness.

Best viewed: On a big-screen television in a hotel banquet room at three in the morning, as part of the free movie series at Dragonomicon XXVII, wanting to jump the bones of your friend laying next to you on the carpeted floor in the darkened room, but being too much of a nerd to do anything about it.

Next on my queue list: 2007's Helvetica, just now out on DVD. Yes, an entire full-length motion picture about a typeface. Yes, the most popular movie in the history of Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center. Shut up.

Read even more about Zardoz: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:28 PM, January 18, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |