A macho fantasy as shameless as John Boorman’s Zardoz ought to be more fun than it is. Visually extravagant, technically impressive, it feels like something H. Rider Haggard might have dreamed up after reading Nietzsche and dropping acid. In Zardoz, a privileged, immortal elite lives in hermetically sealed green communities known as the Vortex while everyone else struggles to survive in a burned out landscape called the “Outlands.” The Outlands are dominated by genetically superior “Exterminators,” who specialize in murder, rape and general mayhem. Leading one group of Exterminators is Zed (Sean Connery), sporting a pony tail, mustache and bright red loin cloth.
The Eternals (who literally cannot die) have been cut off from reality for so long, memorizing dead culture and seeking higher consciousness, that they’ve grown impotent and pathologically bored. Zed’s mission is to bring new life to humanity by destroying the Eternals and impregnating his chief antagonist among them, Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) to propagate a new race of barbarians fit to repopulate the Earth. Like Heinrich Himmler, Boorman apparently thinks humanity’s future is best assured by stud farms. Oh, and the whole thing is controlled by a computer that educates, resuscitates, adjudicates and pontificates with understated British condescension.
Does Boorman want us to take his surname literally? The Eternals are such a bunch of mincing fauns, you expect them to leave hoof prints in the ever so green grass of their parasitic paradise. Smug and supercilious, they don’t deserve to live, and know it. When the Exterminators break into the Vortex, the Eternals beg to be killed. The Exterminators are happy to oblige, and Boorman is even happier to show their deaths in gory detail. The film’s message seems to be “It is time to eliminate the effete intellectuals emasculating all of us.” (Movie directors are presumably exempt.)
Of course, Boorman needs people like those he casts into oblivion to catch the film’s tony references and give him points for his erudition, so you have to wonder for whom Zardoz was made? Junior faculty refused tenure? Alpha males seething after bad sex? Survivalists looking for a spokesman? And does the film’s undeniable technical flair make it better or worse? This is no ordinary, poverty row project, it’s a glitzy ball of confused ideas spinning in the director’s eye. When Zed goes head to head with the central computer, does the disorienting kaleidoscope of striking images make the anti-intellectualism less objectionable? Are we supposed to applaud when the cultural baggage preserved by the Eternals goes up in smoke because the spectacle is so pretty?
It’s that humorlessness mistaken for thematic seriousness, plus some plain, old-fashioned stupidity, that makes Zardoz less enjoyable than its preposterous situation suggests it should be. Boorman’s got a message, and no matter how messed up it is, we have to listen. The results have a lot of style, but some humility mixed with his virtuosity might make a world of difference.