Have you seen Zardoz? It’s a 1974 sci-fi movie set in the year 2293, directed by John Boorman and starring Sean Connery in his second post-Bond role. Connery’s costume is infamous, and just one example of many polarizing elements in Zardoz. In fact, basically every part of the movie is polarizing.
There’s a lot of hate online for Zardoz, which I do not share, but I can understand. It’s a weird one. I wouldn’t say it’s a “so bad it’s good” movie, though. I didn’t think it was bad. Just very different. Very, very, very different.
In case you’ve forgotten the plot, or had trouble identifying it in the first place, let’s review.
The world is a different place in post-apocalyptic 2293. There’s a small, isolated group of cultured immortals. There are large groups of uneducated masses in the “outlands”. And there are bands of barbarian enforcers to keep the masses’ populations in check, who are themselves kept in check through a false religion provided by the immortals.
But there is trouble in the immortal’s paradise. They do not age, they do not die, they do not have purpose. This lack of meaning in life has rendered them all weak and impotent in every sense of the word. A mysterious tabernacle keeps them alive and even regenerates them if they die by accident. Their brains are wired to never be able to destroy the tabernacle, so they are completely trapped for all eternity.
One immortal works over centuries to breed a certain kind of barbarian enforcer in the outlands who would have the mental capacity and strength to topple their society. This is Sean Connery’s character Zed, named meaningfully after the end of the alphabet.
Zed is able to do what the immortals cannot. He stows away and sneaks into the immortal society, absorbs their knowledge, and destroys the tabernacle. This allows his fellow barbarians to finally invade and kill the immortals, who are begging for the same release.
At the end, Zed and one immortal (who is now rendered mortal) have a child, restarting the natural cycle of life and death. They then age and die naturally themselves. It’s a happy ending for everyone.
It’s just presented pretty strangely.
Basically The Matrix
As others have noted, this movie is extraordinarily similar to The Matrix, just a few decades early. And while Zardoz was a product of it’s trippy hippy 70s time, so to is The Matrix a product of the cyberpunk era.
I’m sure The Matrix will be equally embarrassing to our children, given the same amount of time. Especially those godawful sequels I like to pretend didn’t happen.
Both movies involve elevating a “chosen one” to discover his potential and reset society. Both movies show the dangers of machinery playing god. Both support the idea that natural cycles are better than anything we can come up with. Both feature futuristic methods of knowledge transfer. Both involve gratuitous amounts of guns. I could keep going.
Hey, if someone said “it’s The Matrix, but Sean Connery as a mutant barbarian, plus topless women”, you’d watch it, right?
Of course you would.
Society Must Cycle
As with anything that veers to the abstract, you can get a lot of different meanings out of Zardoz. One essay I’ve read claims that Zardoz advocates the nuclear family over socialism. I can understand that, but I’m not sure I’d say it’s what I saw.
So what did I see? To me, Zardoz said two things, the first of which is: a civilization must be, and will always be, cyclical.
In the actions before Zardoz starts, humanity tried to reject this notion of cycles. That’s what the immortals were designed for – to be eternal, to never change, to remain at the same point for all time.
They even protected themselves against their own base desires by removing their own knowledge of the tabernacle and how to destroy it. They were so anti-cycle that they couldn’t escape even if they wanted to.
And that’s just the problem. Just a couple centuries into it, and they desperately wanted to escape.
I imagine the idea of “civilization” trying to maintain its natural way of things, and pushing back harder and harder against the walls humanity erected against it. These walls were too tough, so it had to take a less direct route – through careful planning of one immortal to breed Zed.
And civilization’s natural way of things still won in the end, and since humanity put up its strongest attempt and still lost, we are led to the conclusion that the natural way will always win. That while our sinful exercises may delay it for a while, it is invincible, eventually.
In fact, while the usual life and death cycle is peaceful (as shown by Zed and Consuela serenely passing away) and even desired (as all immortals now crave it), trying to push it off only made it that much worse. Zed and Consuela accepted it and died happily. The immortals resisted it for centuries, and as a result, when it finally came, it was swift and harsh.
Zardoz is saying that no matter what we do, life and society exists to be reborn, to constantly cycle out the old in favor of the new. Those who accept this are given long natural lives and happy endings. Those who resist are given little but suffering.
Death Is Your Friend
Y’know, with how much death is mentioned in this movie – indeed, the whole film seems to be focused on it – I think it would be hard to find some theme here that doesn’t have to do with death.
So “natural death is good” is the second main thing Zardoz says to me. Honestly, this seems to be a part of the cyclical society theme, but I think it’s important enough to be pulled out on its own. Because while the death of society is a distant, intangible concept, the death of an individual is extremely personal. In fact, it may be the most personal experience there is.
Zardoz demonstrates the vitality of death in the simplest way possible: by taking it away and showing what happens. The deathless immortals live in eternal punishment. They’ve created their own Hell on Earth. By avoiding death, they’ve discovered a fate even worse than it.
This is symbolized in their collections of art, as well. They do not create any new art, not really. They simply save and preserve the old art for centuries. Their creativity is as weak as they are. But art is not meant to exist forever, not even the classics.
It can be a little heartbreaking at first, watching them trash all the sacred art they’ve guarded for so long. But you realize it’s part of the same moral. The art constrains them. What they own ends up owning them. They must dispose of the past to make way for their own deaths.
It is all this that reminds us nothing on this planet is permanent. While some things can and should last for a time, nothing should ever last forever. As someone who enjoys the preservation of antiques and old things, this can be a hard moral to swallow, and I’m not sure if I think it should apply in every case. But then again, it doesn’t matter what I think; eventually the sun will explode and go dark and everything here will be lost anyway. Nothing will ever truly be permanent, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
So what’s the solution? Accept death. Accept destruction. Accept that change is inevitable, because it will go forward whether you like it or not; the only thing that you can change is how much you resist it, and thus how easily it treats you in response.
All being said, for a film as campy and odd-looking as Zardoz is at first glance, these themes are pretty deep. Please bear in mind that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with any or all of these themes, by the way – I’m just trying to make the case that that’s what the movie is really about.
So do I like Zardoz? Yeah, I do, although it’s so different than any other film it’s hard to compare it to much else. It’s not something I’d want to rate. Zardoz is just Zardoz. It’s also not something I’d show to anyone else who didn’t know what they were getting into.
Zardoz is a crazy drug-fueled production that hides surprisingly deep themes underneath. From the evolution of civilization to our own individual acceptance of our own last breaths, there’s a lot here.
So when you watch this one-of-a-kind movie yourself, I hope you try to take the bad with the good and just let it flow. It’s a fun piece of art to watch, if you let it be!