John Boorman's hippie utopia gone wrong sci-fi fantasy ZARDOZ hits Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time's Limited Edition series.
In the year 2293, mankind is divided into two factions: the immortal, psychic Eternals who live lives of leisure on a commune-like country estate that fulfills their every need and the mortal Brutals who are forced to work the fields of the Outlands by the Exterminators, the Chosen Ones of the god Zardoz, a floating stone head that exchanges for grain guns and shells so that they might control the population of Brutals ("The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the earth with a plague of man, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill. Zardoz has spoken"). When Exterminator Zed (Sean Connery) wakes up buried in the grain inside the head of Zardoz, he discovers it is a sort of ship filled with people in suspended animation. When he impulsively (or instinctually) shoots the only living person on the ship: Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy, HELLRAISER), false god and magician whose death causes the stone head to land in the idyllic vortex of the Eternals. Psychically overpowered by scientist May (Sara Kestelman, LISZTOMANIA), he becomes an object of study of how the human race has evolved in the last two hundred years since Frayn assumed control of the program with no oversight. Forced to contend so long with only statistical data, May is intrigued by Zed's ability to control what they can see of his memories – however basic and free of abstraction – and wants to study him (using the mystery of Frayn's disappearance as a reason to keep him around. Consuella (Charlotte Rampling, THE NIGHT PORTER) – who voted against forced farming and is horrified by the images of Exterminators brutalizing and killing Brutals – is concerned that Zed's memories will pollute the community; indeed, the others soon find Zed to be an object of distraction and amusement, voting for three weeks in which May can experiment on him. When he is not being analyzed, Zed is assigned to work for fey Friend (John Alderton, THE GIRL-GETTERS), a friend of Frayn's who suspects Zed knows what happened to him, delights in showing the Brutal his world, including the different strata of Eternal society from the Renegades – those punished by aging to senility but not allowed to die (those who manage to kill themselves are "rebuilt") to the Apathetics (those afflicted with a "virus" that causes them to lose all interest in existence). While sexual tension builds between Zed and Consuella, May and Friend discover – through their different inquisitive ways – that Zed is more intelligent than he lets on and may possess the ability and intention to destroy the Vortex (a prospect not entirely unwelcome among some factions of the Eternals).
Advertising for ZARDOZ boasts of being "Beyond 1984, beyond 2001…" and it is a truly stunning and thought-provoking work of science fiction and fantasy that addresses the potential for fascism even in the extremes of utopian movements as well as an in-built bourgeois death wish (with a quirky sense of humor). Mounted in the wake of Boorman's DELIVERANCE and made on a mere 1.5 million dollars (a low two hundred thousand of which went to Connery's salary who replaced a sick Burt Reynolds), the film boasts stunning production design by Antony Pratt (HOPE AND GLORY), costumes by Christel Kruse Boorman (THE EMERALD FOREST), and Panavision photography by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY); and yet, some of the film's richest images are its simplest in terms of composition and diffused lighting. Had Boorman been able to mount EXCALIBUR during this period rather than the early 1980s, perhaps he might have been able to get away with a more anachronistic, flower child-y take rather than the gritty yet budget-deprived final product. Connery is fantastic in a role which challenges and deconstructs his masculine image. His chemistry with Rampling is lesser than with the more intriguing Kestelman and their relationship underdeveloped, but Rampling is always stunning at her iciest. Alderton also has a nice turn as a seemingly jaded but sympathetic character whose still possesses a streak of idealism.
Released on DVD in 2001 by Twentieth Century Fox in an anamorphic widescreen transfer and the four-track stereo mix encoded as Dolby Digital 3.0 (left, right, rear mono surround), the film's Blu-ray release gets a gorgeous MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen encode that handles the diffused lighting and bold interjections of color well (although the enhanced resolution does make evident the collars of the black material worn by the various floating human heads). Although the back cover and set-up menu cite a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, the disc's primary audio track is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. It is a conservative remix that gives a little more discrete depth to the music score and atmospheric effects than one might achieve by forcing a 2.0 or 3.0 mix into ProLogic (or any non-Dolby virtual surround or 3D audio mode). Optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The film's score is included isolated on a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track (always a welcome gesture from Twilight Time).
Ported over from the DVD is the audio commentary by Boorman in which he begins by explaining that the floating head scene with Frayn was added after the film was shot to explain the plot to confused audiences. He is dissatisfied with it, and it does look cheap and sound corny. Throughout he relates the difficulties of working with Connery who resisted wearing the bridal gown and hated the various make-up applications used for the time lapse sequence, although the two would become good friends. Because of the low wardrobe budget, some extras had costumes painted onto their bodies (which still works in a hippie-ish sort of way). He also relates some amusing anecdotes like the communists in France believing the Zardoz masks were modeled on Lenin (rather than his own features) and that the IRA initially would not allow them to import live weapons and ammunition.
New to the Blu-ray is an audio commentary by film historians Jeff Bond and Joe Fordham – who co-authored a book on PLANET OF THE APES – and documentary filmmaker Nick Redman. They discuss how 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORGANGE had given mainstream filmmakers license to create "arty" science fiction films (they also compare the exposition and twist-spoiling narrated prologue to similar instances in DUNE and DARK CITY), and that much of the effects and camera techniques Boorman and company employed here were developed during Boorman's aborted LORD OF THE RINGS adaptation. The commentators also quip about how Connery was trying to get away from James Bond, yet the plot is about his character infiltrating a secret group and destroying them, and his introductory shot has him pointing a gun towards the camera and firing (as well as how it seems that Boorman tried to make Connery look like first choice Burt Reynolds, as well as mentioning that Richard Harris was actually choice number two). Special effects expert Fordham also describes how most of the special visual effects were achieved in-camera – Zardoz's head was an actual thirty-five foot Styrofoam creation and the shot in which it descends towards the lake was performed with a hundred-and-forty-foot crane and not with bluescreen – through a collaboration of Boorman, effects supervisor Gerry Johnston (RAWHEAD REX), and cinematographer Unsworth with the help of heavily saturated colors and filtration in front of the lens to hide wires. The video displays were actually front-projected on the set by Charles Staffell who had created video displays for 2001 and later ALIENS. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer (2:29), six radio spots (5:00), and an illustrated essay booklet by Julie Kirgo. The Blu-ray is limited to 5,000 units available through Screen Archives Entertainment. (Eric Cotenas)
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