9/30/2011

Zardoz: an Appreciation

Often maligned, frequently laughed at, but full of the kind of WTF imagery that first drew me to science fiction: Zardoz. I'd always meant to blog about it, but never did, although I did write a piece about it for Martin Lewis, when he put together a collection of short essays by various sf writers on their favourite movies. It was published by the BSFA as a small pamphlet, called SF Writers on SF Films: from Akira to Zardoz. It came out in Summer of 2009. Here's what I wrote:



ZARDOZ


It's easy to forget that after the imagined, shiny, optimistic techno-future of the Sixties, exemplified by movies like 2001, the Seventies were in many ways characterised by a creeping cultural malaise predicated on the notion that there was no future to be had; that civilisation had reached some kind of apotheosis which could only be followed by an inevitable decline into chaos and anarchy. Although this sense of imminent doom was largely fuelled by the constant and very real fear of nuclear war, there was also a nascent environmental movement to warn of the imminent collapse of the ozone layer - assuming, that is, the oil didn't run out first. And if that didn't happen, then nature would find some other way to punish us for our hubris.

Although there was no lack of post-apocalyptic movies prior to the Seventies, the form they  took at that time seemed reflective of a genuine inability to see beyond the end of that decade. The hopefulness of the Sixties had given way to the sense that Judgement Day was a-coming, and neither good old-fashioned American know-how nor plucky British stoicism would be able to do a damn thing about it. It was a time that saw the birth in the US of Survivalism as a life-style choice, and cinema found itself reflecting the fear that with the end of civilisation so clearly approaching at breakneck speed, the only sane thing to do was to hole up in the country with plenty of ammunition and a portable power generator. This fear was reflected in the UK as much as anywhere else, manifesting itself in TV shows such as Survivors and the final Quatermass series, with John Mills fighting  his way across a collapsing Britain. Even the innocuous back-to-nature  comedy  of The Good Life was a reflection of this save-yourself zeitgeist with its comfortably middle-class take on self-sufficiency.

To understand Zardoz (dir. John Boorman)  in its proper post-apocalyptic context, it’s worth taking a look at Boorman’s previous movie, Deliverance, where Lewis - played by Burt Reynolds - makes it clear he expects the collapse of civilisation at any minute when he delivers the following lines: "Then  it's going to come down to who can survive and who can't, when the lights go out and the taps are dry. Survival."  Zardoz,  made in 1974, crystallises this expectation in a work of visually stunning science fantasy.

The film straddles a curious bridge between the apocalyptic fantasies of the mid-Seventies and the more psychedelic excesses of the Sixties. Starring Sean Connery as a wasteland-warrior commanded by his god Zardoz to slaughter ‘Brutals’ in a landscape clearly made from the ruins of our own, he smuggles himself inside the mouth of his God - which manifests as an enormous flying stone head - only  to discover that Zardoz is nothing more than the creation of a race of human immortals (Eternals) who have survived the fall of civilisation within communities known as ‘Vortexes’. Protected by impenetrable force-fields and deeply stultified by unending life, these Eternals secretly yearn for death. However, since they made sure their central computer (The Tabernacle) would always resurrect them upon death with their memories intact, even suicide isn't  an option. Connery’s role, then, is to bring welcome death to the Eternals.

Without giving too much away, Zardoz is effectively a brutal, sexual, psychedelic take on The Wizard of Oz, with Connery as Dorothy, the Tabernacle as The Good Witch, and Arthur Frayn as the Wizard, while the Vortex acts as a stand-in for the Emerald City. Mostly, however, Zardoz is best remembered for its visual appeal, particularly the enormous stone head and the costuming (Connery spends most of the movie in a red loincloth and thigh-length leather boots, as well as a ponytail and zapata-style moustache that would probably have gone down a storm in some of the era’s gay disco’s). Its inventive visual imagery makes the most of a relatively tiny budget, and doesn't skimp on the plot, presenting an intelligent and carefully woven tale of dissent amongst the Eternals in which Connery's ultimate role is never quite clear until the end.

Although dismissed by some critics, I consider it a welcome antidote to the modern crop of over-CGI’d committee-produced epics. It was a movie that always seemed to appear last thing at night on the TV schedules in the Seventies and Eighties, usually unannounced; the kind of thing you tended to stumble across after a long  weekend hanging out in the student union (or at least, you did if you were me). Plus, Charlotte Rampling gets her kit off. Can’t knock that.

4 comments:

James Broadhead said...

I appear to be first to comment, and so now for an appropriate unexplained quote from the in-media-res first scene of the movie:

"The Gun is Good! The penis is evil!"
"The Gun is Good! The penis is evil!"
(Guns fly out of the mouth of the giant flying stone head)
ZARDOZ!

Richard Bensam said...

Lured here by the link at SF Signal…

I'd say Zardoz is one of the vanishingly few SF films -- that is, there are almost no others -- to actually follow the methods of good SF in prose. It proposes a fundamental science fiction idea (scientists devising a form of immortality for the young in a failing world), the central question is what are the consequences of that development (what kind of culture do these immortals develop and how do they relate to the "Brutals" outside?), and then everything else you see is a direct result of extrapolation from that starting point. And on top, it turns out the whole premise is a metaphor for the bubbles in our own world occupied by rich, beautiful young people who can block themselves off from lowly common folk but ultimately need them in the end. But it's all hidden away and revealed in bits and pieces so you have to puzzle at it to get the whole thing -- again, more like rereading and pondering a book than like watching a movie in the pre-video era.

And it's got humor and satire and sarcasm. I give it two guns up!

gary gibson said...

Very astute reading, Richard. I suddenly seem to recall, reading your comment, that the movie's also got an interesting leftist bent to it, since it is, essentially, about the working classes rising up to destroy the ruling classes...

Richard Bensam said...

Yes, it's the anti-Metropolis! When gun-toting rednecks meet the liberal Hollywood elite, bloodshed ensues!