Friday, July 10, 2020

Space 1979: The one where James Bond hijacks a giant flying stone head

Title: Zardoz
What Year?: 1973 (pre production and casting)/ 1974 (release)
Category: Irreproducible Oddity
Rating: Dear God WHY??!!

With this review, I will be introducing a new category, the Irreproducible Oddity. As outlined in my Introduction (done about the same time as my Critters review), these are not just especially weird movies, but ones that could only have been produced in a very specific time and place. The definition readily fell into place even for films I had not settled on covering: Only the 1980s could have produced Lifeforce, only the French could have produced Fantastic Planet, only the Italians could have produced Zombie, and only the combined warped genius of William Castle and Marcel Marceau could have produced Shanks. It was further apparent from these examples alone that the 1970s would be an even more target-rich environment than the following decade. With these parameters in place, it was clear that one movie was absolutely unavoidable: Zardoz. Dear Logos, Zardoz.

If one's going to try to summarize this film, you might as well start with the opening scene. On the ground, barbarians gather in the throes of hysteria, calling out the name Zardoz. As we watch, a huge object descends, in the form of a stone head. A bounty of guns (and presumably ammunition) spews from the mouth of the head, accompanied by a blunt command to kill others rather than reproducing. A barbarian named Zed manages to sneak aboard, kill the mysterious pilot, and ride to the source. There, he discovers a colony of immortals where procreation is detested and half forgotten, nonconformity is punishable by senility without death, and a growing number of rebels yearn for the return of mortality.

In hindsight , the most noteworthy thing about Zardoz is that it was the first science fiction movie to gather "big name" talent in front and behind the camera. It was written and directed by John Boorman, fresh from Deliverance among other box office successes, and of course starred Sean Connery (chosen after Boorman announced Burt Reynolds in the role).  The most genuinely memorable performances are from John Alderton as Zed's immortal ally Friend and Sara Kestelman as his nemesis May. Despite the assembled names, the whole thing was done for under $2 million. An additional artifact to come out of the production is a novelization that Boorman claimed responsibility for. (At the time of this writing, I am awaiting a copy for further investigation.)

When I first considered this feature, I made a few comments asking for suggestions on movies to cover. What intrigued me most is that most of the input I received were titles I was either already considering or had already decided to be unsuitable for inclusion. The exception was this film, which I was almost ready to set aside but then saw suggested repeatedly. Naturally, I had seen the film long ago, and would probably have seen it again fairly recently if it had been more readily available. For this review, I finally purchased a digital copy, if only because I was pretty sure I would be viewing it again just to be sure I had seen what I saw. Which, I must emphasize, is something that hardly ever happens to me.

My strongest reaction on viewing it is that the film isn't that complicated or convoluted in concept or story. Anyone who could keep track of most of the characters and events in  Message From Space or Star Crash will certainly have no trouble here. Furthermore, I remembered its main twists (particularly the origin of the name Zardoz) from my single previous viewing. This left me with the further difficulty of explaining just why it feels as strange as virtually everyone agrees it is. I think part of the answer is that it captures the feel of "far future" science fiction, still most closely associated with and perhaps only done effectively by A.E. Van Vogt. In this much, the film is unquestionably effective, despite a relatively unambitious date of 300 years in the future. The strangeness is heightened by the incongruously frank depictions of sexuality and violence, which make for an either gut-busting or jaw-dropping moment every 15 or 20 minutes.

Then there is the "one scene", and this movie was a lot harder than any other I have reviewed. What I have to go with is a scene around the midpoint where the immortals compel Zed to give an account of his life of barbarism and fanaticism. Their technology displays  his thoughts and memories as he recounts killing in the name of his god Zardoz. The result is a vision of a post-apocalyptic world more vivid and effective than many films achieve in their entire length. It culminates in the capture of a woman, at which point many a movie would either cut away or descend into trite exploitation. The scene instead ends with a closeup of the victim's face.

With all this said, readers may be wondering why I have rated the film as I have, the lowest on my scale of weird and/or bad. I certainly do not hold the film to be as bad as the likes of Inseminoid, but to me its flaws are all the more annoying. The deeper issue is that I cannot find a way to rate it other than I have and still give it a rating at all. The bottom line is that I may have reached a point where I can understand it, but I still cannot understand why it was made or why anyone would want to make it. In that, I suppose I must give it credit. I give up and move on; let other tales be told, for better or worse.

For links, here is a Space1970 catalogue of posters for the film, from which I took the one featured here.  For the record, I had no knowledge of this blog when I arrived at the name for this feature. See also my Introduction to this feature for an overview of the ratings system, classifications and more.

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