The Earth of 2293 is ruled by the Eternals, immortal humans who keep the rest of humanity, Brutals, in check through the Exterminators, raiders and warlords that harvest food in return for weapons vomited out by a giant talking stone head. One of these Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), stows away on the head as it returns to the Eternals' home, the Vortex. He becomes something of a novelty among them, but Zed soon discovers he has been brought there for a sinister purpose.
Zardoz is a breed of film that doesn’t really exist anymore, a (very) modestly budgeted SF movie that sets out to tell you story in the most pretentious and obtuse way possible. It’s a film that invests in its own silliness without hesitation, and it has plenty to invest in. If it were made today it would be a grim monochromatic trilogy that would begin with how the strange future of 2293 came to be, instead of throwing in the viewer head first and letting the culture shock sort itself out.
If you can deal with a film that thinks it is much smarter than you, Zardoz is by turns compelling, funny, and even occasionally shocking. A opening monologue by a disembodied head that we later come to know as Friend (John Alderton) lets the viewer know they shouldn’t be taking all of this quite so seriously even if the rest of the film insists on it. This statement becomes focus of the narrative late into the film as the Eternals are forced into letting go of their sterile serious lives, although perhaps in a way they weren’t expecting.
Visually, Zardoz is as fractured as its tone. The giant floating stone head is simply achieved and looks very good. There are a number of location shots that look vast and breathtaking; many of the interiors locations are lush and filled with detail. At the same time much of the Eternals technology has a 1960’s plastic psychedelia flavor to it, I feel this supposed to purposefully clash with the much more grounded environments but I think it makes the fantastical locations mostly look cheap and flimsy by comparison. The costumes are ridiculous across the board; shiny robes, drawn on mustaches, red diapers with bandoleers, and Sean Connery in a wedding dress.
Zardoz is no way a user friendly movie, it holds the viewer at a distance making them piece how the world works with little help, while at the same time having characters who are subsumed into an environment, or so detached as to be alien themselves. Throw in some graphic violence and rape, and you can see why Zardoz is such an acquired taste. I feel it is worth the effort, this is a film that can be enjoyed simultaneously as an ambitious piece of late New Wave SF with plenty of hippie trappings, and as a long shaggy dog story that keeps throwing out goofy set-pieces when things threaten to slow down.