The tragic failure of Zardoz is especially painful because of just how seriously it takes itself. There’s a whole mythology surrounding the events and characters of the film, but instead of being exciting or interesting, it’s confusing and ridiculous. It doesn’t help that not one of the characters, no matter how much time they spend on screen, ever feels fully realized. The strings of romance, friendship, betrayal and mystery never feel compelling at all. Is there a reason that I am supposed to care about the fate of the immortal Friend, or about the role of Arthur Frayn in the events of the film? Is there any true role for the two primary female characters, Consuella and May, aside from exposition? Is there a reason that Sean Connery stars in this awful film? I couldn’t help wondering whether he took the role just because his character gets to touch a boob.
It’s the distant future, the world has fallen to pieces, and a group of chosen men are ruled by a giant stone head which calls itself Zardoz. It spits guns at them, praising the instrument of death as good and denouncing the instrument of life as evil. If I had been intoxicated in any way, I’m not sure that I would trust my memory that this scene actually took place, but alas I cannot convince myself that these were the absurd dreams of an inebriated man. This actually happens. Then, quick as a wink, one of the Chosen – a man named Zed (Sean Connery) – hops aboard the faceship and journeys to the magical world of Sector Four. Sector Four is a place where maybe two dozen people live, where death has been eliminated. When a person reaches toward death, they are simply reborn using the magic of science! Crime is punished with aging, although the process by which a person is aged is never really explained, and career criminals are forced to live as octogenarians forever.
Zardoz is a mystery. How did this brute Zed find his way to Sector Four, and what does his arrival portend? As the other inhabitants of the Utopian village quarrel over what to do with the man, their suggestions range from killing the beast, using him as a slave, taking the creature in as one of their own, or perhaps studying him for his unique ability to achieve penic erection (their words, not mine). Yes, there is a scene in this movie where a group of people dressed in colorful future-type clothing play images of soft-core porn and women mud wrestling on a wall while watching Sean Connery to see if he gets a boner. I take back what I said before: I’m glad I can’t convince myself that this movie was a fever dream cooked up by alcohol, because if I was dreaming about Sean Connery hard-on parties, I might have to seek some sort of counseling.
Meanwhile, Zed himself is racing through his own mind to try to understand the miraculous new situation he’s found himself in, and his trusty gun won’t necessarily get him through this time. His god has been false all along, as gods tend to be, and coping with that fact while simultaneously being introduced to a world full of scientific gizmos out of the space age has got to to be unbelievably traumatic. You’d think. There is more that COULD BE going on in Zardoz than the movie actually accomplishes, hints at a darkness or biting social satire which are never realized in any manner. Beethoven’s 7th symphony is used multiple times, a piece of music which often has the effect of exacting a sense of profound and/or epic scale on a film (two of my favorite movies, Tarsem’s The Fall and Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, use the piece to punctuate their final scenes), but in Zardoz it feels out of place. What is important or moving here? Nothing. It’s least effective in the closing scenes, which look as though they mean something, but do not follow from anything which came prior. The personalities of the characters change in a split-second, their motivations revealed to be something which could not be, or their knowledge shown to be clearer than originally thought. But these sorts of flighty alterations to who the characters fundamentally are, it’s a cheat.
No, it’s not a cheat. It’s just sloppy. There is a climactic sequence which provides a revelation to who/what Zardoz truly is. The way that the revelation comes about is laughable. Its meaning is intended to be thought-provoking, but in actuality is brutally superficial. Without giving too much away to those of you whose interest in viewing the film may have been piqued by my previous descriptions, “Zardoz” is a literary reference but with only the flimsiest of connections to its source. Much as when Zed quotes Neitzsche later in the film (“He who fights too long against dragons, becomes a dragon himself”), the meaning is maintained but the essence is lost. Neitzsche’s quote doesn’t just mean ‘movie has surprise twist where person actually working for opposing forces’, it’s about the toll that a prolonged battle has on one’s psyche to ultimately turn a man toward that which he once despised. For all its talk of advanced beings, Zardoz doesn’t get that. It sets up straw men and calls them gold. But worst of all, after the supposedly momentous end to the mystery of Zardoz, the question is dropped altogether in favor of a B-story involving talking crystals.
So there you have it. Zardoz talks about sex as though it intends to be clinical, then flashes prurient images on the wall instead. It talks about death as though it wants to be somber about the subject, then sets a frenzied pack of the elderly on Zed like jackals. It pretends to be about life, but it’s really about as lifeless as a movie can be. I guess there are occasional scenes of unintentional humor, but the majority of Zardoz is lazy fragments of ideas pumped up with self-importance so to appear thoughtful. It’s not.