Like Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, Zardoz is a complete train wreck that fails at so many levels it has to be seen to be believed. If you don't want me to spoil the fun for you, stop reading and go rent it now (it's coming out on DVD later this month), otherwise what follows is my synopsis of this debacle.
Zardoz is undoubtedly a product of the early seventies, when hippies were still stinking up the land and all the hipsters were out to "expand their minds." The film, I suppose, owes much to Stanley Kubrick's, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This chart maps the comparison:
|2001: A Space Odyssey||Zardoz|
|Set in the near future (2001)||Set in the distant future (2293)|
|Trippy planetariumesque light show||Slide projections on Sean Connery's tangled nest of a chest|
|Deals with man's evolution to the next level, floating space fetuses||A cast of immortals, the supposed pinnacle of human evolution, who go topless at the drop of a hat|
|A perplexing ending in which the main character rapdidly ages through the stages life.||A perplexing ending in which the main character rapidly ages through the stages of life.|
All this worked in Kubrick's movie, what was Zardoz missing that could have taken it to the next level? My guess is that it's Zardoz's general lack of monkeys. This was Kubrick's genius. The man knew how to push the monkey to boring plot ratio. Boorman came close to achieving this sublime balance by casting Sean Connery in the role of Zed's hairy chest, but falls just short of the mark.
Most of the film does consist of Sean Connery running around in a reddish Speedo™ and knee-high boots, with nothing but a bandoleer covering his chest. My reaction during the first third of the movie wavered between being in awe of this ridiculous outfit and wondering why Connery even accepted this stupid role.
For all its failings, there are some seemingly grandiose ideas lurking behind the cheese. The movie actually opens with the floating head of Arthur Frayn proclaiming that the story we are about to witness is of great importance, "rich in irony and most satirical." You would think that somehow a guy with a painted on moustache and an English accent couldn't possibly mislead you. However, by the end you realize his monologue bears the same message delivered in Criswell's intro to Plan 9: "Future events such as these will effect you... in the future!"
The whole thing seemed to be about something. What is truth behind our existence? Who controls the floating god-head of Zardoz? Are guns really better than a penis? Wouldn't it be great if we all died? The only real message I got from the film was that drugs are bad, they make you do embarrassing things, they make horrible film ideas come to fruition.
Much of the film's plot centers on the giant floating stone head of Zardoz. The question that perplexes the residents of the Vortex and the one that the film makers want the audience to be perplexed about is, "How did Zed get inside the stone head?" This doesn't provide much of a driving plot line. Many times throughout the movie, the question most of us as viewers want answered are more along the lines of, "What just happened?" The movie is filled with little goofy touches: one of the character's voice cutting in and out for his friends' amusement, green bread, mud wrestling, zombie-like characters who drink sweat for power, group-meditation, and gratuitous toplessness.
Fortunately, later this month Zardoz will be released on DVD. The DVD will include John Boorman's commentary. I am hopeful that his commentary will amount to more than an apology to his fans, and that they truly let some light on the meaning behind this cinematic debacle.