BFI John Boorman Season – Zardoz (1974)
Films lurking at the apex of the alphabet are few and far between. Even a cinephile such as myself finds it difficult to offer movie titles beginning with that arrogant dash of a letter known as Z, there’s Michael Caine’s honourable sacrifice in Zulu or Costa-Gavras politically deadly Z, (which to my eternal shame I haven’t seen), the more historically attuned of you may consider Zéro de Conduite, Jean Vigo’s celebrated childhood paen which shares its qualities with the dark surveillance of Zero Dark Thirty. Then there’s Woody Allen’s schizophrenic Zelig or Antoninoni’s explosive Zabriskie Point, a film which arguably shares some contemporarily minded cultural concerns with tonight’s entertainment. With the possible exception of any of the Zombi movies, or Takashi Kitano’s Zaitochi for us cult and SF fans the first Z movie that springs to mind is the eccentric Zardoz, the post Bond Sean Connery starring oddity which has developed something of a devoted cult following, as part of the retrospective BFI season of John Boorman’s work this was an immediate selection for a big-screen reappraisal due to an urge to revisit a film I’ve never entirely enjoyed despite my affection for all things Science Fiction. I’ve seen the film maybe twice before and the only real moments that have stuck in my mind is the striking opening and unintentionally amusing conclusion, and I have to say that an enjoyable but slightly exasperating rewatch hasn’t entirely changed this opinion, although I was struck by a) the amount of drugs the filmmakers were clearly on and b) a small gloomy resignation that I couldn’t join them in tuning on, jumping up and dropping down. Or something;
As the BFI is festooned with posters celebrating Boorman’s work it amused to me see the tagline ‘Beyond 1984 ; Beyond 2001’ quoted on some marketing material, a mere seven years after the gradual appreciation of Kubrick’s Space Odyssey this was one of the last films of the cycle of distinctly odd and partially intellectual SF movies, before Lucas’s meek little effort obliterated ‘cerberal’ SF for the likes of Republic Serial inspired derring-do and scorched laser-blast swashbuckling silliness. In a far advanced civilisation – well, some of it has advanced – the human race has evolved to the point where powerful subjects known as Eternal rule over a sub-class of the dregs of humanity, a group hunted and killed by another strain of Homo-sapiens known as the ‘Brutals’. These swarthy, amusingly garbed barbarians are brainwashed through a religious spell of fire-arm rifle distributing giant floating heads, convincing the proles to exterminate their weaker brethren under the orders of a holy supplicance, in order to destroy the curse of life and pay treaty to the all-powerful deity of Zardoz. Whilst the elite class idly cavort and enjoy the wealth and resources of their godlike technology one rebellious leader of the exterminating underclass known as Zed (Sean Connery, anxious to shed his Bond image) manages to infiltrate one of the shielded villages, as a figure of curiosity to the Eternals Zed’s arrival upturns the society and a chain of revolution is set in motion, as he slowly seduces the senior matriarchs Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) and May (Sara Kestelman) and ushers in a new stage of revolution, or should that be evolution?
Shot in the tranquil beauty of the Wicklow mountains of Boorman’s adopted Ireland Zardoz can best be described as a Heavy Metal strip crossed with a Michael Moorcock book, specifically his Dancers At The End Of Time series with the idea of an idle class of late civilisation humanity wielding incredible technological power over life and death itself, but suffering from a profound sense of ennui and moral incapacity as they have simply seen, done and experienced everything, yielding questions that perhaps a core tenet of our humanity is the limited lifespan we are granted upon the earthly realm. It has its assets, like many films of the period it has a specific visual charm which is a hangover of the psychedelic sixties – halls of mirrors, crazy framing, colours timed to ‘pop’ on the emulsion – which stands in contrast to the digitial holocausts of contemporary SF, all the optical tinkerings are practical models or in-camera feints, and I’ll always a smiling affection for these techniques on the big screen. And as is my idiom I must once again highlight the presence of Geoffrey ‘2001: A Space Odyssey Unsworth in the cinematographers chair, he was clearly the go to guy for SFX heavy projects in the Sixties and Seventies, and would you believe it we shall be seeing even more of his work next month as part of a different BFI film season, but I’ll just tease you with that clue and move on…..
The reveal of the background universe and what has happened to led up to this allegorical society is not a bad framing device from a genre perspective, it does provoke the requisite internal ‘aaah’ response but holds little depth in how Boorman explores the muddled metaphor, and any allegorical treatise behind the framing is lost among a rather cluttered and narcotic narrative which doesn’t really know where’s it going or what to do when it got there. I was amused to see the deployment of Beethoven’s 7th as a swirling aural ballet to the bookended on-screen antics, this piece of music has become increasingly popular (The Kings Speech and Irreversible to name but two fairly recent examples) and this may be it’s very first utilisation on the silver screen – and then after consulting with our digital oracle I found this which provides many more examples. So is Zardoz a groovy Griselda or a Debbie downer mmmaaannnn?? Well I think it has had its impact on the genre even as it is lampooned and dismissed as a messy embarrassment, that appropriation of older texts as source material (The Wizard Of Oz as a defining cultural instrument in this case) has become something of a crutch for the genre, and just a casual glance at the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas invokes similarities with the pure visuals of their long advanced, neo-feudal society, and I’m pretty sure that Stephen King used the same framing tool as part of his Dark Tower odyssey.
The film can and has been read from a variety of political viewpoints – a critique of the self involved, Ivory Tower dwelling countercultural movement who deny human barbarity at their peril? A poisoned and bewitched servile class kept in mental chains by the hypnotic possession of religion and an urge to bow the divine as an excuse for unleashing tangible horrors? The hippy dream taken to its logical conclusion as an ideological nightmare? Is Sean Connery’s moustached and crimson nappy sporting Zed really a stand-in for Manson and his families unorthodox version of cultural revolution? Only the giant floating head knows, and he ain’t yapping. I’d like to keep this review relatively short so I’ll just wrap things up by saying I can see what fans appreciate in Zardoz but I’m no zealot, it is very much a product of its time and is thus quite the bizarre and idiosyncratic beast, a curio which doesn’t quite meld its cultural commentary with its psychedelic pondering, indulgent and irascible in equal measure – but I do still like the opening.
As I meandered home after this screening with a slightly puzzled expression on my face I was reminded of Beyond The Black Rainbow as a more recent example of unusually psychotropic Science Fiction, although I’m quietly furious that the bloody film never received any sort of release here and I’m still praying for some sort of DVD or Blu-Ray miracle. In terms of the more esoteric SF of the period may I humbly suggest Robert Altman’s little considered Quintet which is a real cult competition, then of course there is the ecological concerns of Silent Running and The Omega Man which together offer a far more effective use of the counter-culture, post-holocaust landscape, as does A Boy & His Dog which shares many of the allegorical dimensions of Zardoz and other societal shimmering SF serials. Closer to home was the Skynet heralding supercomputer of Colossus: The Forbin Project which is a personal favourite, then there’s A Clockwork Orange and The Andromeda Strain which cast long shadows across the genre even after a certain Space Opera detonated in 1977 and transformed the genre and movies in general. What’s next? Well, I’m accelerating matters to warp-speed for a more up to date look at the universe of SF, so join me as we both seek Oblivion….