Before watching the movie:
The discourse around Zardoz typically begins and ends with Sean Connery’s outfit. Nobody has anything to say about Zardoz other than how bad it is, and at this point I wonder how many people saying that have actually seen it. On paper, there are a lot of cringeworthy elements, but I have to wonder how it manages as a cohesive whole. I have to know for myself what Zardoz is like.
After watching the movie:
In 2293, most humans live in a brutal, uncivilized state. A chosen few are selected by their god Zardoz, a flying stone head, to use weapons to exterminate the rest, in the belief that humans only destroy nature in their existence. Zed, one of the Brutals, hides inside the stone head to gain entrance into a Vortex, a utopic village of the elite Eternals who control the Brutals and force some of them to grow crops for them. Almost immediately, Zed shoots Arthur Frayn, the Eternal in control of the stone head and Zardoz identity, and Frayn falls to a death below. However, Eternals have developed a life without natural aging, where those who manage to die are immediately reconstructed in new, identical bodies. The scientist Consuella and her assistant May capture and pacify Zed with telepathy in order to study him and subject him to menial labor within the community. Another Eternal, Friend, plans to use Zed to overthrow the social order the Eternals have been imprisoned in for hundreds of years. But none of the Eternals suspect that Zed is not as mindless and savage as he seems.
At least in the British Isles, there was often a dreamy, new-age aspect to science fiction in the 70s. I feel like, by watching this movie, I’ve seen several episodes of “The Prisoner”. And I think I would have rather watched The Prisoner. This movie is full of trippy visuals that don’t make much sense, trying for something more artful and psychedelic than representative. Everything hinges on crystals, video projection is used to paint walls and people, and everything in the world of the Eternals that isn’t straight out of an 1800s Irish countryside feels so technologically advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.
The other aspect that came to dominate 70s movies was an overindulgence in the evolution of social mores caused by the sexual revolution. This movie sets up a society of haves and have-nots where the haves are as repressed and oppressed by their lifestyle as the have-nots they distantly rule over, but rather than explore that very much, it would rather exult in explicit assault and meditate on the collision of raw sexual power with a world that has bred reproduction and desire out of itself. I don’t think there’s a single woman in the movie that doesn’t spend at least a third of her screen time topless. The result is both deeply uncomfortable to watch and dramatically disappointing.
There is also an incredibly frustrating mix of over-explanation and drawing out mysteries so long the viewer decides they aren’t important. I finally found something really interesting to watch in the third act, when Zed begins to really develop into his full potential and explain his intentions, but the mysteries and tensions that set that up are so buried by exploring the Vortex and the pretenses for nudity that it affords that I had thought that Zed’s origins were just unimportant.
There’s an interesting spin on the kind of social commentary that’s been a part of science fiction since The Time Machine here, but unfortunately, it’s held back by the extravagances and limitations of the 70s. Maybe a modern remake could salvage this, but I’m sure it would be so different that it would be rejected as a remake. I’ve seen Zardoz, and in that knowlege, in this form, I can’t recommend others do so.