Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Zardoz (1974)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - Into a world of eternal life, he brought the gift of death.

Sean Connery delivers a powerful performance in this fantastic vision of a future world divided into two societies. The Vortex is an isolated, heavily guarded, lush community of immortal scientists and intellectuals called the Eternals. Outside the Vortex lies a desolate world laid to waste by war and pollution, peopled by the Brutals, primitive savages and killers who worship a fearsome god, Zardoz. But one rebellious Brutal (Sean Connery) is determined to survive on his own terms, which could threaten the balance of civilization…and possibly destroy it. Co-starring Charlotte Rampling, Zardoz is an entertaining adventure praised for its special effects and imaginative vision.

Director: John Boorman
Cast: Sean Connery, Charlotte Rampling, Sara Kestelman, John Alderton, Sally Anne Newton, Niall Buggy, Bosco Hogan
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 3.0, French Digital Stereo; subtitles English, Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 24 chapters; rated R; 106 min.; $24.98; street date 3/27/01.
Supplements: Director's Commentary; Radio Spots; Still Gallery; Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/C+/C

After he experienced terrific success with the gritty rural drama of 1972’s Deliverance, director John Boorman then proceeded along a predictable path: he made an artsy and ambitious science fiction film. Yes, the comments about the logical nature of his decision are facetious, as 1974’s Zardoz presented what seems to be a left-field offering from Boorman.

Really, other than the fact that both starred tough guys who are fond of toupees, I’d be hard-pressed to find any similarities between Deliverance and Zardoz. In the latter, it’s the 23rd century and the usual post-apocalyptic world is depicted. Actually, “usual” isn’t appropriate. While it’s true that an awful lot of science fiction flicks just love to show what’ll happen after society collapses, the organization featured in Zardoz seemed atypical.

Essentially society is split into “Eternals” - fey, psychic hippies who live forever - and “Brutals”, who are rude, crude, and violent. For the latter, their lives are governed by “Zardoz”, a spooky talking head made of stone that insists they not procreate and gives Exterminators weapons to rid the world of many folks; the noggin actually utters, “The gun is good, the penis is bad”.

One of these Exterminators named Zed (Sean Connery) manages to slip past the boundaries of his world and ends up in the Vortex, the home of the Eternals. All’s not well in paradise, as these wimps have fashioned the definitive politically-correct existence; simply exuding a negative aura will gain one punishment here, and Zardoz forbid that you exert any “psychic violence”!

Unsurprisingly,. Zed’s presence stirs up matters and causes problems. At first he’s treated like an exhibit at the zoo - literally - but eventually the worm turns. Zardoz explores these issues and many others through its ambitious storyline.

While I respect the goals of Zardoz - it really does try to delve into ideas and attitudes - I didn’t think the end result seemed terribly satisfying. During the film’s first half, I was kept interested just due to the mystery of the whole thing. There are enough little plot twists and hanging questions to keep the story at a compelling level.

However, these largely collapse during the final 50 minutes or so, at which point the movie essentially collapses under the weight of its pretensions. It wants so badly to be about so many different ideas that it ultimately becomes muddled and melodramatic. When the film concentrated on a satire of utopian ideals, it satisfyingly hit the mark, but once it attempted to get into a grander scheme, it lost its focus and evolved into something tedious.

It doesn’t help that the production values of Zardoz have not aged well. The first half of the Seventies was a bad time for science fiction films, and most of them suffer from similar cheesiness; Logan’s Run stands as a prime example of this factor. Virtually all aspects of Zardoz come across as silly and dated, from the outfits - especially Connery’s notorious red loincloth - to the score and the effects. These aspects don’t have to seem goofy, as films like Star Wars and 2001 have shown, but Zardoz doesn’t manage to maintain any form of timeless look.

Ultimately, Zardoz offers an intriguing theme and some moments of compelling drama, but too much of it comes across as silly and campy for the project to ultimately succeed. However, I do give it high marks for its efforts to be something unusual and thought-provoking, and I must note that this film has inspired an extremely dedicated band of followers. Go to the Home Theater Forum and run a search on “Zardoz” and you’ll see what I mean. Thus, although I didn’t much care for Zardoz, many others feel otherwise; this movie causes many extreme reactions, both on the positive and negative side of the equation.

The DVD:

Zardoz appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture featured some concerns, as a whole it looked pretty good for an older film.

Sharpness usually appeared nicely crisp and detailed. Some scenes came across as moderately murky, but this almost always resulted from the use of “smoke”. That effect caused a muddiness that had nothing to do with the transfer; it was simply part of the original film. In any case, those issues occurred fairly infrequently and most of Zardoz seemed distinct and well-defined. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no significant concerns.

Print flaws also appeared fairly minor for an older movie. Throughout the flick I detected occasional grain plus some examples of grit, speckles, and blotches. However, these never became truly problematic, and for the most part I felt they were pretty mild. Ultimately the image seemed nicely clean.

Colors appeared largely accurate throughout the movie. At times the hues looked a little drab, and the tones never were terribly bright and vivid, but the colors generally were adequately reproduced and they lacked any problems related to bleeding or noise. Black levels seemed similarly good, with some nicely dark and deep tones, and shadow detail came across as acceptably dim but not excessively thick. Again, the smoke rendered some scenes a bit murkier than I’d like, but this wasn’t a grave concern. In the end, I found Zardoz to provide a good viewing experience.

Also decent but unexceptional was the film’s Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack. That mix rendered audio from the front three channels and did not provide any surround usage. For the most part, the imaging anchored itself heavily to the center speaker. Actually, dialogue seemed oddly broad during much of the film. Speech appeared to come from all three speakers at the same time for some portions, and this created an odd impression. The main focus still stayed in the center, but the strange breadth was a bit off-putting. Otherwise, I heard some occasional effects and music from the sides, and these blended together acceptably well, but it remained a largely centralized mix.

Audio quality seemed typical for the era. Speech periodically was too bass-heavy due to the strange three-speaker spread, and at its best, it still appeared somewhat thin, but dialogue remained consistently intelligible and it lacked edginess, so I found those elements to be acceptable. Music and effects both seemed similarly thin but clear, and though the track lacked any true dynamic range, it appeared clean and fairly bright. Ultimately, the audio for Zardoz was pretty typical of movies from the period. As such, it earned a fairly average “C+”.

While Zardoz doesn’t contain many extras, we do find a running audio commentary from director John Boorman. This screen-specific program provides a decent but flawed piece of work. On the positive side, Boorman occasionally offers interesting tidbits about the production and some good insight into the meaning of the movie. He even relates his low opinion of some parts of Zardoz and tells us we’re allowed to fast-forward through some scenes!

Boorman is interesting when he speaks. However, much of the commentary passes without any remarks from the director. It’s a spotty piece that can go too long without information. On the technical side, I noticed that the volume level of Boorman’s voice seemed too erratic. Sometimes I’d have to adjust the settings because I couldn’t hear him, but I’d then be stunned by another statements that appeared to be shouted at me because the level had returned to normal. Technical flaws aside, this commentary was mediocre due to too many gaps, but it still offered a decent complement of notes and thoughts.

In addition, a few other extras appear. We get the original theatrical trailer for Zardoz plus six Radio Spots. There’s also a Still Gallery that includes three separate areas: “Production Photos and Concept Art” (9 images), “Lobby Cards and Publicity Photos” (10 frames), and “One Sheets and Press Book” (five pictures). “Fox Flix” promotes other DVD releases via trailers for Alien Nation, Aliens, Enemy Mine, Independence Day, and The Abyss.

That wasn’t a packed set of extras, but since it’s fairly amazing that a film as odd and obscure as Zardoz made it onto DVD at all, those supplements should be viewed as the icing on the cake. As far as the main dish goes, I thought Zardoz was an admirably ambitious but only intermittently compelling work. The excessive cheesiness of its production values can make it difficult to watch, so the end result is interesting but problematic. The DVD provided generally good but not exceptional picture and sound plus a minor complement of extras. In the end, Zardoz is far too weird to be embraced by a general audience, but if you’re interested in something different and quirky, it may be up your alley.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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