I have seen the future. And it doesn’t work.
(Note: This entire essay, on the whole, is one huge series of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, you may want to read no further.)
So, Sean Connery’s mondo bizarro costume aside, what’s the movie about?
(If you’ve gotten this far, I assume you’ve not only seen the movie, but that you’re also a fan of this offbeat 1974 Sci-Fi cult flick and likely have an opinion already about what Boorman’s movie has to say.)
It’s about the final days of the Tabernacle, a futuristic society of scientific, telepathic elites gifted/cursed with eternal life (the Eternals) living a worry-free existence in literal isolation (an utterly secure enclosure called the Vortex) from the murderous thugs (Exterminators) and the mud-caked, downtrodden, nomadic poor (Brutals) whose labor efforts maintain the balance on behalf of the Eternals’ comfort.
We’re informed that the Vortex was established because “the world was dying”. Hmmm. Shades of Thomas Malthus, perhaps? Al Gore? Chicken Little?
Initially, the Eternals (one specifically, named Arthur Frayn) created the Exterminators to wipe out the Brutals (population control, just too many people to feed?), then to enslave them, so as to spare the Eternals from toil…(although Eternals are shown making their own bread, the Brutals, as slave labor, work the fields from which the wheat originates)…since many Eternals have recently begun turning “apathetic”, and, thus, incapable of pulling their own weight within the collective.
In other words, as with any utopian society, the elite eventually realize, “Oh, wait…to make this work, we’ll need slaves”.
I would argue, however, that, given what we’re shown/told in the movie, the Eternals don’t actually need the Brutals, nor the Exterminators, to sustain the Vortex.
For hundreds of years, the Eternals had the Exterminators slaughtering the Brutals wholesale. Or, to put it politely, practicing active population control (genocide) in reaction to a perceived scarcity of resources. The Exterminators were created, bred, for that sole purpose.
Then, one day, Frayn decides the Exterminators should stop killing Brutals and instead, supervise them in a forced-farming arrangement, from which Eternals “eat the bread” produced by the Brutals’ slave labor.
Question: Where did the Eternals’ food come from before this forced-farming began?
This small collective of Eternals got by for hundreds of years in complete isolation, but, now that a few of their number (the Apathetics) have ceased to help produce their ‘fair share’ of food for the collective, outside slave labor suddenly becomes essential to preserving Eternals’ comfort? That doesn’t make sense.
We see what looks to be some sort of hydroponic technology in the Vortex– and we’re constantly told and shown these Eternals are super-smart– yet we’re to believe their carefree, comfortable quality of life is now somehow reliant upon the outside world? It never appears to be.
Life in the Vortex before “the Apathetic plague” began was completely self-contained. That was the point of establishing the Vortex, as a ‘safe space’ for the Tabernacle…yet the Eternals’ genocide against the Brutals appears based on the concern the Brutals were overpopulating the planet.
Some viewers describe the Eternals as a ‘gentle, peaceful’ people. I’ve always seen the Eternals as cold-blooded snobs on a collective ego trip, having sanctioned genocide for hundreds of years because it was the only ‘rational’, ‘scientific’ course possible to save the planet (and their own special place on it)…until the day they decided slave labor and forced-farming was the only rational option.
These people are creeps. A gentle, peaceful people wouldn’t have created the Exterminator class.
At one point, one Eternal says to another, “What has Arthur been doing out there all these years?”, meaning Arthur Frayn, the mastermind behind the Exterminator breeding and forced-farming program.
I imagine the following inner monologue for Arthur Frayn:
“Look at this perfect life our parents, the masterminds, gifted us with: We live in isolated tranquility. Nobody unwanted is able to get in. Literally.
We have eternal life, or, rather, nobody stays dead, they’re always regenerated, brought back to life, personal preference be damned.
Since we do have eternal life, our urge to procreate has been diminished, so none of us have any sex drive left. We don’t have to worry about food. But…
Eternal life gets really, REALLY boring after a few hundred years.
Especially when you consider you’ll spend eternity with the same dreary group of bland drones and humorless control freaks…all of whom you’re telepathically linked with, by the way, so there is no privacy, not even in your thoughts.
Everything has to meet the approval of the group, which consists of a few joyless know-it-alls steering a tepid herd of passionless drones.
Sure, you can try to get away from these jerks, but that invisible force field keeping the Brutals and the Exterminators out also keeps us Eternals in.
You can try to escape by killing yourself, but the Tabernacle keeps bringing you back to life.
If you lash out at the Tabernacle in angry frustration, they’ll add a little physical age to your body.
If you still won’t conform to the collective will, they’ll age you a lot, then banish you to a retirement home down the road, where you spend eternity with babbling, senile, decrepit, punitively-aged malcontents and non-conformists just like you.
Go along with the group. Or else.
Jeez. What a sorry excuse for a life this is.
However, being the mastermind that I am, I’ll put a mechanism into place which, years from now, I’ll use to trigger the destruction of this stagnant utopia.
The ruse to mask my strategy will easily receive the approval of my fellow Eternals, for I’ll ensure it appeals to their shared cultural assumptions about the outside world (i.e., overpopulation + scarcity of resources justifies genocide).
Makes perfect sense to the Malthusian, paranoid wisdom of my peers, so, hey, why not?”
The story’s main character, the chief Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) admits the forced-farming participation pissed him off. We’re killers, he complains, not farmers. Ordered to cease exterminating and begin slave-driving for food, Zed’s inspired to seek out answers.
When Zed learns he and his fellow Exterminators have been deceived and manipulated, he gets even angrier, now determined to enter the Vortex and seek “revenge”, to upend the status quo by destroying the Tabernacle.
Ultimately, that means the murder of every Eternal, now that their ability to be ‘reborn’ has been taken away by Zed’s discovery.
So, yes, Arthur Frayn engineered the destruction of the Vortex, i.e. Utopia.
Eternal life may have been a great idea for the first few hundred years, but then it got really tedious. Even worse so once one realized the individual had no choice in the matter.
Not only are you going to live forever, but you’re going to have to live forever in the same dreary, limited, confining space with the same group of humorless, bland, pampered children of privilege you’ve already spent hundreds of years with.
Eternal life in the Vortex is viewed in the film as a soul-deadening existence in which the individual has no choice but to remain a prisoner to the will of the collective.
Not knowing what Arthur’s been up to outside the Vortex, the other Eternals have had to take it on faith that “the world was dying”, same as their parents did when they created the Tabernacle/Vortex (designed to preserve the finest accomplishments of civilization, since the rest of the world was most certainly about to collapse).
But was the world really about to “die”? Or was that merely the Eternals’ shared perception?
To me, that claim always rang hollow and could’ve been just another article of faith, no different than the Zardoz myth was for the Exterminators and Brutals, an instance of one party’s irrational superstition/fear becoming another party’s useful tool.
Everything that happens in the film– Zed’s infiltration of the Vortex, the disruption caused by his arrival, ultimately escalating to the destruction of the Tabernacle, and with it, the immortality of the Eternals– is orchestrated covertly by Arthur Frayn.
Perhaps Frayn concocted this because he wished to be able to die and remain dead.
Perhaps it was just a lark, a subversive, ‘naughty’ experiment meant to pass the time.
Perhaps he just wanted to see if he could pull it off.
I’m not as concerned with his motives, though, as with the result of his actions. That result determines what the movie’s finally about.
Life becomes dreadful and loses its value when individuals are deprived of privacy and choice.
In this case, when they’re forced to spend eternity in isolation with the same small, dull group of drones and control freaks, yet never allowed to be alone in one’s thoughts. So dreadful that even the prospect of death is greeted with enthusiastic glee.
With the destruction of the Tabernacle came freedom.
Unfortunately, the Eternals, driven mad by their years of immortality, could only imagine their best option being sudden death (except for the few women who’d chosen to become pregnant with Zed’s ‘seed’, flee the Vortex, give birth to the next generation and carry on living).
For all its colorful, campy trappings, Zardoz, finally, is about a radical restoration of individual choice.
To state that the film is about “the haves and the have-nots”…
…or to focus on the color of the Exterminators’ costumes (revolutionary red, so they’re obviously Marxist liberators!)…
…or the fact that the floating Zardoz Head somewhat resembles Karl Marx (on the DVD commentary, Boorman admits the face was modeled after his own)…
…is to merely scratch at the surface of what’s going on deeper in the story.
When I purchased Zardoz on laserdisc 22 years ago, never having seen the film before then…my familiarity with it only from snippets I’d skimmed from the novelization when I was in 6th Grade in 1981…I was extremely disappointed in the actual movie.
But it still featured certain qualities I enjoyed, such as its cinematography, score, locations, surreal visual effects, its futuristic design (the floating Zardoz Head, in particular). In spite of its goofier artistic flourishes and often cryptic dialogue, I kept returning to the film.
It was only recently, after reading online Zardoz analyses from a few radical Leftists attempting to claim it as their own, that I began taking a closer look at the film.
Most of these Leftists focused their critiques on the film’s subject matter: “the Haves versus the Have-Nots” clearly represented the 1% and the 99%, an allegory for the dehumanizing influence of capitalism (as if no such class division exists in the egalitarian societies of Cuba, Venezuela or Zimbabwe, or had ever occurred within the Workers’ Paradise of the old Soviet Union).
Because it illustrated class warfare, that had to be what Zardoz was all about.
And because the Eternals had utilized the Exterminator class to commit genocide against the Brutals, the Eternals most certainly represented cold-hearted capitalist elitism (apparently these folks are unaware of the history of eugenics, found almost exclusively on the Left).
Other Lefty appraisals cite the film as making a statement on Environmentalism. The Eternals’ establishment of the Vortex had been in response to their planet “dying”– or so said the small handful of elitist know-it-alls who made the initial leap (because we all know scientists never make mistakes or peddle biased assumptions as fact). Therefore, Zardoz was ‘prescient’.
Some of the Leftist interpretations focused mainly on characters’ costumes, status, technology, tools, etc. A very shallow approach, distracted by surface details, by things, an approach which clumsily overlooks the story’s essential conflict: Submission versus Freewill.
Other reviews, leaning towards more of an anarchist/atheist direction, focused on what they perceived as the story’s nihilism: Eternals choosing death over life, but only after God (Zardoz) is exposed as a fraud designed to keep simple people in line.
“So Zardoz trashes religion. That’s what it’s about!”
This was a feature of Frayn’s strategy, but, again, I would ask…for what purpose?
Freedom from the groupthink of a passionless herd.
To regain freewill. To regain the freedom to choose.
This point seemed lost on the aforementioned Leftists (whose critiques often devolved into long-winded dissertations on Marxist theory, the Industrial Revolution, Occupy Wall Street™, those Eeeevil Tea Party Peeples, blah blah blah), but it’s those precise freedoms which the conclusion of Boorman’s film extols as virtues.
If anyone had told me back then, that, all these years later, I’d be putting this much effort into analyzing Zardoz, I would have laughed in their face.
It still seems absurd to me. And I say that as a fan.
Zardoz will always be viewed as a bizarre, cerebral cult film…featuring some unfortunate costume decisions seemingly designed to chase away casual viewers…and I doubt few new viewers will likely ever bother to check out or give it a second look– so, having written this piece, I’ve probably succeeded only in amusing myself.
So be it.
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that, after working with Burt Reynolds on Deliverance, John Boorman offered him the role of Zed.
Suppose Burt has any regrets about that decision?