“Beyond 1984. Beyond 2001. Beyond love. Beyond death.” read the tagline for John Boorman’s existentialist 1974 science fantasy flick Zardoz, which was also beyond comprehension for much of its 105-minute runtime. Equal parts ambitious and pretentious, it doesn’t fully live up to its lofty ideas, but it is nevertheless fascinating to watch thanks largely to unrestrained weirdness, stunning cinematography, and copious nudity.
The movie is set in the year 2293, on a post-apocalyptic Earth inhabited primarily by the Brutals, humans who have fallen into barbarity; they are in turn ruled by the highly advanced, virtually immortal, and very effete Eternals, who use select Brutals, known as Exterminators, to cull the human herd. The Exterminators worship a giant flying stone head called Zardoz, which provides them with weapons and such teachings as: “The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds, and makes new life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was; but the gun shoots death, and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth… and kill!”
One such Exterminator, Zed (Sean Connery in his second post-Bond role) makes his way onboard Zardoz and is transported to the Vortex, a secluded community wherein the Eternals live a civilized but stifling existence. Cursed with an endless lifespan, they have succumbed to boredom and corruption. Some fall in a catatonic state and are dubbed “Apathetics”; violators of the complex social rules are punished with artificial aging and labelled “Renegades”. Zed, a pawn in their power struggles, plumbs the depths of the Vortex’s secrets. Then things get weird.
Zardoz straddles a fine line between knowing satire and pompous bullshit, which is part of the fun of watching it. Boorman (Excalibur) was given free rein with the project due to his prior success with Deliverance; he goes off the rails here, applying the allegory and bizarre visuals with a shovel. Zardoz couldn’t possibly reach its grand ambitions, but that didn’t keep Boorman from trying, delivering an unapologetically cerebral movie on a shoestring budget. It runs the gamut of perplexing, infuriating, titillating, and shocking, which keeps mostly engaging. Arguably, its notion of a stagnant upper class rotting inside a gated community while the unwashed masses wait for a chance to bring it down from the inside plays even better in today’s social climate than it did 40 years ago.