Monday, August 1, 2016

Zardoz


   "THE PENIS IS EVIL." With those words, this weird 70's sci-fi movie was instantly burned into my memory. There's simply no forgetting a movie with a mostly-naked Sean Connery disrupting a futuristic hippie commune, ripping up children's books, getting mobbed by a bunch of senile old people, and ending up on the losing side of a few staring contests. Amazingly, there's a story to this movie that puts all of those things into a proper, understandable, and cohesive context. Some might argue that fact with me, but I'd make the counter argument that they weren't paying attention. Oh ho ho.

   Zardoz looks like a bad movie, it unfolds like a bad movie, but that's the ultimate deception here- it isn't a bad movie. In fact, dare I say it's even worth of 'classic' status. If it wasn't for the overblown third act that probably confused the hell out of people more than anything else in the movie, Zardoz might've been embraced by a more mainstream crowd. But where's the fun in that? The movie takes place in the year 2293, far enough in the future that we're not gonna mark down the date in our calendar and then make a humorous annoying fuss about it on Facebook or Twitter. (See: Back to the Future Part II)

   See, Zardoz is one of those futuristic movies that rejects the notion of shiny skyscrapers and flying cars, or even the grimy overcrowded streets of Blade Runner. Zardoz shows us a post-apocalyptic world, divided into regions, that are being controlled and manipulated by a small group of people in an oasis-like utopia, all but hermetically sealed off from everything else. Things kick into motion when a barbaric 'exterminator' named Zed (Sean Connery) finds out that the god him and his fellow killers worship, is false. He stows away on the false god's... big... flying, stone head, and unknowingly infiltrates the sealed society.

   They're fascinated by him, and scared, and even disgusted. But in the name of science, they'll study him and his experiences via his memories. As they learn about him, he learns about them. This society might look perfect, but none of these people ever die. They've been alive for hundreds of years in an idyllically ordered society. Most of them are insanely bored in ways we could never fathom. As a savage and a killer, Zed is eventually looked upon as a savior- seeing as how he could be the one to finally introduce death to these people. Of course... it's not that simple. But that's the main idea behind the movie.

   With thick socio-political commentary lining the twists and turns of the plot, it's easy to get lost in the goings-about of Zed and these new age hippie-humans. What's worse is that most of the high-concept science fiction ideas are presented in some of the most painfully cut-rate ways. There's a scene late in the movie where one of the main characters, a scientist named May, is trying to see Zed's memories for herself. This is achieved by having them roll around together under a blanket. Also, as another character explains "You've heard the phrase if looks can kill? Well here they can." Yes, all of these people apparently possess some kind of Jedi-stare, which has no special effect attached to it at all. Just a sharp noise. Sometimes you're not even sure of what's going on because there's not even the obligatory close-up of the starer's eyes.

   Is Zed flipping out finally? Oh no, it's just someone giving him the stink eye again. Also, there's an all important supercomputer that's revealed in the third act, and the object used to represent it is of course really small and unassuming. Like, oh, of course. Silly me, why did I ever expect to actually see a supercomputer or anything? This isn't that kind of movie, because it's not depicting that kind of future. Holograms and advanced medical science, sure. But just don't expect to see any tricorders or anything. These 'humans' have even evolved past the need for sleep. They just meditate. All of this stuff just serves to accentuate the point that these people have simply been around too damn long.

  Their society is well beyond ripe, it's rotting. Mankind was maybe never supposed to be like this. So decadent, so... stagnate. It's that premise which allows for the movie's true triumph. The basic subversion of the hero ideal. Usually, a hero comes in and saves a bunch of people from a bad guy. But, in Zardoz, he has to save them from themselves... by killing them. Or at the very least, inspiring death. Hundreds of hundreds of years worth of pent up and denied feelings, emotions, and experiences all come crashing down as Zed infiltrates this little society.

   The movie's backstory is interesting, as is a lot of the more straightforward visuals. The giant floating stone head is as striking and haunting as it is potentially silly and hokey. It spits out guns for it's savage followers to use. "THE PENIS IS EVIL..." it decrees, because procreation is outlawed. "THE GUN IS GOOD. GO FORTH AND KILL FOR ZARDOZ." All this stuff is effective, if you're into weird 70's sci-fi. There's a catchiness to this movie, a memorability to it. Sean Connery might have been an economical casting choice, but he was a good fit for the role of Zed, and I'm hard pressed to think of anyone else who would've made it so watchable. At times he almost seems aware of how silly and absurd all these people are.

   Zardoz isn't a bad movie, like I said, it just looks like one. The early scenes are grim and energetic, showing rampant violence, savage killers on horseback running down their victims, and then... we're stuck in a dysfunctional hippie commune for the majority of the run time. If you know what you're getting into, Zardoz is a quirkly idea-heavy ride, but it's not really an 'exciting' movie. If you watch it expecting an adventure, you will be let down. It's cerebral in the extreme, but it's a thrifty cerebral- like a far flung SF paperback novel that no one's ever heard about, married to secondhand effects and shoestring budget sets. It's not what you'd see in your head, reading the book, but maybe this is the way it deserves to be seen, this is what the material deserves to exist as. And... somehow... it works.

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