During the late 1960's and early '70s there was a spate of films that became known for being best experienced with pharmacological assistance -- "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and so forth.
"Zardoz" has all the aspects of a great stoner picture: loopy story, strange outfits, dream-like sequences with lots of special effects and colors. In terms of getting high while watching it, at first it best fits with a drunken state, but then moves on to doobies and cocaine, and eventually hard LSD.
It's a film that is at once supremely silly -- Sean Connery's ridiculous red-bikini-and-bandolier get-up is one for the ages, particularly when initially paired with thigh-high leather boots -- and yet is one of these rare movies that has Something to Say. We laugh at it, and laugh with it, but also recognize some uncomfortable insights about ourselves in between the goofy science-fiction antics.
This is the sort of movie a filmmaker does after they make it big with a huge critical and commercial success. John Boorman, one of my favorite directors, was just coming off the hit "Deliverance," and after abandoning a project to adapt "The Lord of the Rings" came upon the idea of this dystopic tale set in the year 2293.
The human population has become split between Eternals and Brutals, the masters and their unwitting slaves, respectively. The Eternals have achieved total consciousness, which includes shared telepathy ("the second level") and the ability to launch psychic attacks. They do not sleep or age, they want for nothing, and they're incredibly bored out of their highly evolved skulls. Everything is ordered by a pure democracy, in which the entire population votes instantly on any question put before the group.
Some of the Eternals rebel against their unchanging state, and as punishment are made to age several years at a time. After enough of these they become old folks dubbed Renegades, and are placed into the equivalent of a nursing home to while away eternity in a fog of senility. Others simply become so listless they cease to move or speak; they're fed and kept marginally alive by the active Eternals.
The Eternals live inside a series of green spaces called Vortexes, while everything else is given over to the Brutals. A giant flying head called Zardoz is the latter's god, appearing once a year to dispense firearms out of his mouth and collect the food they've grown. The Exterminators are an elite class of killers and rapists whose job seems to be to keep the population down and docile. Zardoz directs them thusly:
"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."
Connery, in only his second role after leaving the James Bond franchise (for awhile), plays Zed, the Exterminator protagonist who stows away aboard the Zardoz ship and kills its master, Arthur Frayn, an Eternal who has been charged with overseeing the Brutals and the outlands (mainly because nobody else wanted the job).
After he arrives at Vortex Four, Zed is captured and made the subject of an ongoing series of experiments by two of the Eternal leaders. May (Sara Kestelman) favors understanding and scientific inquiry, while Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) views Zed as a monstrous beast who should be disposed of.
The physical and emotional contrast between Zed and the Eternals is telling. With their loose, flimsy and brightly-colored clothing, long flowing hair and devotion to harmony, the Eternals are clear stand-ins for the hippie youth counter-culture of that era. They live in agriculture communes apart from the rest of the world, which they consider brutish and irredeemable. They prefer to employ their minds for heightened experiences (drugs) rather than concrete physical accomplishments.
Zed, on the other hand, represents a pure id, the throwback man who embraces his taste for violence and sex without illusion. The Eternal males are all effete unbearded man-boys with scrawny, hairless bodies and, we are told, the inability to achieve an erection. Everyone claims this is because they have evolved beyond the need for intercourse, but both the Eternal women and men are fascinated by the virile specimen Zed presents. Consuella is humiliated -- and intrigued -- when her experiment with sexual imagery fails to arouse Zed, but her own presence does.
Connery presents a strapping image as Zed, with his hairy chest, horseshoe mustache and long ponytail swung over one shoulder. Connery first gained notice due to his physique, honed by bodybuilding, though by 1974 things were starting to head south. Reportedly dismissed as Bond for looking too old, Connery's torso and limbs, if not quite properly called flabby, no longer held their youthful trim.
In effect, the Eternals are the young progressives while Zed and his cohorts are representatives of the sclerotic old world and everything wrong with it.
Things get increasingly trippy, and more and more out of whack, as time goes on. We eventually learn Zed is a "mutant" with the potential to become the proverbial Chosen One who alters the fate of the world -- at one point, May even describes Zed as mentally and physically superior to the Eternals.
Things really get loose as the movie moves into its funhouse phase, with Zed fleeing through a maze inside his mind as he attempts to tap into the Tabernacle, the crystal computer network that joins all the Eternals together. The Zardoz head/ship was a fake deity created to fool the Brutals, but the Tabernacle aspires to the real thing: "I am everywhere and nowhere; that has often served as a definition of God."
The story ends in an orgy of killing, as Zed turns the Eternals mortal again just as his band of Exterminators arrive. The Eternals rapturously embrace their own death, especially Frayn and another named Friend (John Alderton), who had acted as Zed's chief tormentor and confidant. "The slave who could free his masters," Frayne describes Zed, right before his own bullet arrives.
I first saw "Zardoz" when I was but a pup, and admit most of the film's deeper meanings went straight over my head. Many of the scenes still come across as so transcendentally silly that it's hard not to laugh out loud at moments when Boorman did not intend.
The part where the other Eternals turn on Friend is a prime example -- they point their upraised hands as they attack him with invisible mind-mojo, while he whines and resists: "Noooo.... I will not go to the second level with youuuuuuuuuuuu!" It's like a seance that went bad, with the evil spirits invading the participants, who were all high to begin with.
Despite this loony bits, "Zardoz" remains an intriguing cult classic that can be enjoyed on different levels. I prefer to have my laugh at the hokum, but respond to Boorman's trenchant criticism of both a society ruled by the fist or the mind. Or you can just drop some acid and tune out. Nobody's stopping you, man.