Zardoz is a quirky science fiction film originally released in 1974. Incidentally, the same year of famed writer Philip K. Dick’s science fiction flavored mystical experience (dubbed “2-3-74”). I mention this to prepare us, at the outset, for the kind of 1970s “High Weirdness” we’re about to encounter. John Boorman, the film’s director, bluntly tells us that
“it was the ‘70s, and I was doing a lot of drugs. Frankly, even I’m not sure what parts of the movie are about.”
And that’s fine. Some of the most interesting expressions in art are the utterly inexplicable—they don’t yield easy interpretation but they are, nonetheless, rich with meaning.
In the case of Zardoz, they also give us Sean Connery in a red tankini.
What we can say about Zardoz is that it is a gnostic film through-and-through. By gnostic, I mean of course a certain motif that many science fiction writers seem to have an affinity for (Philip K. Dick’s literary zone par excellence). The world-as-trap, reality-as-illusion, a stage set by often ill-intended magicians, with only the spiritual protagonist’s ability to see through that falsity and carry the story forward—very often to higher, truer planes of reality. The gnostic-tinged films of science fiction are too numerous to exhaustively list here, but we can name The Matrix trilogy as one of the most prominent ones.
But, there’s a lot more going on with the film. It’s as serious as it is absurd. One of those “weird ‘70s movies” to be sure. But, as Tor mentions, it isn’t just the “kitsch disaster you think it is.” Boorman seemed content to match a gunslinging Connery with a psychedelic, cerebral science fiction art film about human evolution, and the results are… fascinating, for starters.
THE LAND OF BORED GODS
First, let’s set the premise. Zardoz takes place on Earth in a post-apocalyptic 2293 AD. Human civilization has all but ended, with its remnants splitting into two factions: the Eternals, who live in protected zones called “Vortices”, and the “Brutals”, who roam the wasteland in a state of survivalism. There is a third group, the “Exterminators”, who cull the population of Brutals for the Eternals and subjugate them to grow food for the Eternals. The Exterminators are commanded by what they think is their god—a floating statue head called Zardoz.
Enter Sean Connery in his first role since leaving the James Bond franchise: “Zed.”
Very early into the film, we learn that “Zardoz” is but a mere Eternal named Arthur, who lives in the nearby Vortex. Zed shoots him after sneaking into the floating stone head and travels to the Eternal’s Vortex. He is quickly apprehended and subdued by their psychic powers. We learn that the Eternals—as their namesake suggests—cannot die. All aspects of their society, including their regeneration and mastery of supernatural powers, have been developed by an A.I. called “The Tabernacle.” Having done away with death, they have also eliminated the need for sex, procreation, and sleep. The latter has been replaced by a kind of telepathic state of collective consciousness, or what they call “Second Level Meditation.” We later learn the A.I., the Tabernacle, is involved in controlling this group mind.
A hint of Zed’s spiritual illumination—one that is yet to come—is given when he discovers Arthur’s living quarters. The A.I. projects an image of Arthur’s eye, of Zardoz, onto Zed’s forehead—his third eye.
Two Eternals, Consuella and May, examine Zed. Contrary to Consuella’s wishes, May decides to study Zed for a period of time before destroying him. Zed befriends another Eternal simply called “Friend”, who shows him a smokey room filled with assembled bits of human history, ancient statues of Greek gods and other deities. Civilization’s detritus. It is a room full of gods, but, “they’re all dead”, Friend says.
Not all is well in paradise. The Eternals, through the Tabernacle A.I., have the sum total of world knowledge—probably more. But they are listless and bored. Some develop a kind of spiritual illness and become the Apathetic, roaming the Vortex grounds without purpose.
Friend tells Zed that this disease is “slowly creeping through all the Vortexes.”
And what of those who break the law? In the Vortex, punishment for wrong-doing is time. Friend jokes that wrong-doings are “discussed endlessly… over and over.” But the Tabernacle is the ultimate sentencer: it ages the Eternal. The really bad Eternals are forced to live in a state of perpetual twilight senility as Renegades at the edge of the society.
Even though the Eternals have reached the summit of technological and psychic achievement, something has gone wrong. They are a stagnant society. They do not procreate, or even appear to have sex for pleasure. (They do, however, appear to have an intense interest in studying Zed’s genitals.) They do not dream. “Second Level” meditation appears to have all the loftiness of an ethereal consciousness on a higher plan, but none of the depth of the human psyche. Without dreams, they can access neither the Freudian Id, nor the Jungian archetypes. No Eros (the god of sexual drive, life, and creativity), nor Thanatos (the god of Death, and in psychological lingo, often described as the “death drive”). The gods are dead, indeed. (Remember that psychologist James Hillman often wrote of how the gods are mirrors for forces and powers within our own psyche.)
The room of dead gods gives us pause, anticipating the 2006 film, Children of Men, where in another post-apocalyptic Earth human beings have lost the ability to procreate. The protagonist visits an upper class friend who has collected in his home priceless works of art from Western civilization. The problem arises, as cultural philosopher Slajov Zizek points out, in that these great works of art are “deprived of a world… when this world is lacking, it’s nothing.” This film points to the “ideological despair of late-capitalism… a society without history. The true infertility is the very lack of meaningful historical experience.” We mention this here because of its direct line of relevance to the Eternals in Zardoz. The Eternals have exited history—transcended it, in some sense—but in consequence, they lost their place in the historical drama, and the evolutionary unfoldment of the human species.
The Eternals begin to shift their dismissive attitude toward Zed when May, during a psychic probing session, unlock’s Zed’s memories and discovers that he is, in fact, part of a eugenics program Arthur had created in order to develop humanity’s next evolutionary leap. Zed is no simple brute, but a superhuman whose intelligence far surpasses even the Eternals. Admittedly, this plot point is rather sudden, as we’ve only seen Zed up to this point gawk at his captors and revel in his brutish origins. “I took a woman in his name…Zardoz.”
Once his memories have been unlocked, we learn that Zed had been guided by a mysterious ally to discover a book in the Wasteland—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Zed realizes that Zardoz took his namesake from that book “Wizard of Oz”. He becomes disillusioned and, with a band of fellow Exterminators, vow to sneak into the deity’s head and kill the imposter god. That, finally, explains what Zed was doing at the beginning of the film.
Zed’s pal, Friend, is confronted in a kind of psychic trial (during Second Level Meditation) where they learn he hates the Vortex and wishes for change and death. He is punished by being aged and sent to live with the old Renegades.
Some of the Eternals begin to see Zed as their liberator—he awakens their psyche, bringing Eros and Thanatos back into their world. They can feel his erotic charge and know he brings liberation through death. Zed is a monster to the Eternals, but “the monster is a mirror, and when we look at him, we look at our own hidden faces.”
Zed learns that the A.I. and the Tabernacle was created by one of the aged Eternals. The first generation of Eternals, who designed this society, eventually rebelled from it. Unfortunately, the Tabernacle’s A.I. was so advanced, and so clever, that it exceeded the control of its creators. Their means for an escape from history had become a prison.
In many ways, it’s the Tabernacle, and not Zardoz, that is the true gnostic false god—the demiurge—of the story. It offers the technological appearances of higher consciousness while trapping its society in a perpetual solid state. (A mirror for some darker urges of Silicon Valley, perhaps?)
The Vortex was intended to be “an ark” to continue human evolution in the stars, but for reasons unexplained, space colonization failed and humanity remained trapped on Earth.
Revolution breaks out amongst The Eternals. Some see Zed as their liberator, bringing change and death, others see him as a threat to the Tabernacle and their immortal utopia. The Apathetic start to awaken upon seeing Zed. Some Eternals mistakenly kill someone and become eroticized—they start to have sex.
In a word: all Hell is breaking loose in Heaven.
The Tabernacle, the breaking of bread, and other images in this film borrow from the Abrahamic faiths liberally. The Catholic Communion. The wrathful deity. Enter Zed, the gnostic liberator on his way to smash the demiurgic god of the Old Testament armed only with the gnosis of a Webley-Fosbery revolver.
OK, that last part may not be a motif borrowed from antiquity.
The Eternals help Zed by psychically giving him all of their knowledge. The scene is interesting in that a form of tantric union accompanies their psychic union—Zed floats in an erotic headspace with the Eternal women as all of world history float and merge into one another; an anticipation of Terence McKenna’s “Archaic Revival.” (Incidentally, a movie like this would probably fit in fine at an early ‘90s psychedelic rave.)
We learn that the Eternals have a small implant in their forehead—on their third eye—that allows them to commune with the Tabernacle. Zed is able to find the crystal that houses the Tabernacle and confronts it in what can only be described as an altered state of ‘70s cinema. I’ll leave that to you, dear reader, to enjoy for yourself.
Arthur, at this point, has regenerated. He confronts Zed about the strange helper who gave him The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was him all along. Friend was also helping Arthur with his eugenics project to create Zed, which they both saw as the answer to the problem of stagnated human evolution and the demiurgic Tabernacle.
In any case, Zed wins the day. The Tabernacle is destroyed. The Vortex is no longer protected and the Brutals smash through its protective shield, unleashing a welcome death—Thanatos—upon the Eternals, who are now mortal as anyone.
Zed tells Arthur and Friend that the Vortex is “against nature”. In other words, the Vortex is against time, and therefore life—both of which are needed for evolution to occur. Arthur quips in this scene that it was he who literally bred Zed to be the liberator, not some higher power. It was he who forced evolution’s hand and created Zed, pitting the will of a stagnant Eternal society against the will of nature quite deliberately.
“I have looked into the force that fed the idea into your mind. You have bred, and led, yourself.”
What is this higher force Zed is alluding to? Exactly what did he see upon defeating the Tabernacle’s infinite, refracted crystal mind? The clear-mind of Buddha consciousness? The supramental mind of Aurobindian evolutionary mysticism, self-initiating us into the future? Henri Bergon’s élan vital? We can only venture a guess.
What we can say so far about this film is that it spoke surprisingly well—gun slinging ‘70s psychedelic erotica and all—about the spiritual and ideological anxiety that Western civilization still faces today. It points to a culmination of Western consciousness and its ideals, their inevitable stagnation, and the need for a spiritual evolution.
A restlessness in us has set in. The gods are dead in Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Late-capitalism is our crystalline Tabernacle, but it is not the ultimate evolutionary aim of the human species. (And so it wasn’t for the majority of humanity in Zardoz, either, as the majority of the Brutes were starving, and revolting, and enslaved.)
So, we too have forced evolution’s hand.
The Eternals asked Zed what his intentions were: Revenge? Evolution to a higher form? The answer is yes.
An erotic, tantric, evolutionary mysticism which beckons us into the future. Into our own becoming.
“Zed” is the “Z” of the British alphabet. He is, in other words, the end of things. For the Eternals, he was their welcomed end. The god of Death bringing an end to one level of consciousness to initiate the erotic birth of another. (2001: A Space Odyssey also played with this idea with David Bowman’s aging and death, followed by the appearance of the Star Child.) Endings are also beginnings, so at the end of this film we see Zed and Consuella aging, birthing a child, and eventually dying. Their skeletons hold hands as they embrace the evolutionary process bigger than any one individual lifetime. Zed’s sentence is up. Our sentence is also up at this plateau of consciousness—and the future beckons, lures us.
Zardoz anticipates these endings and leaves us with the question: What is the evolutionary gnosis that might help us move forward with our becoming?
Go watch it if you haven’t, and watch it again with these ideas in mind. It just goes to show, at the peak of ’70s High Weirdness, it was completely in the realm of possibilities to have a revolver symbolize revolutionary, spiritual gnosis. Bang.