Zardoz: SF’s Maligned Masterpiece

Tony Peak
11 min readAug 25, 2023
Image courtesy of Twenty Century Fox

Zardoz is one of those cult films that people either love or hate; there seems to be little middle ground. Since I’m posting an essay about this film, which is nearly half a century old as of this writing, I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. If you watch it with an open mind, you might join that camp, too.

This science fiction movie, released in 1974, and directed by John Boorman (later of Deliverance and Excalibur fame) has been much maligned over the years, but most of the criticisms are focused on the piece’s admittedly low-budget effects and costumes. The narrative does have its issues, but Zardoz’s themes and scope are nothing short of breathtaking. Boorman made an ambitious, avant-garde scifi film, unapologetic and unflinching as much as it is compelling.

This essay contains spoilers, and is intended for those who have watched the film.

Synopsis

“Time? Wasn’t eternity enough?” — Friend, to May, on destroying the Vortex

Zed, played by Sean Connery, is an Exterminator, a Brutal that worships a flying head called Zardoz, in the year 2293. He and his fellow cultists kill other Brutals — normal humans — who breed too quickly, and thus threaten the Earth’s sustainability. But Zardoz orders them to enslave the Brutals in order to grow food, which makes Zed and his comrades suspicious. Zed sneaks into the ‘Vortex’ (a reward promised to the Exterminators by Zardoz) in order to find answers. But the Vortex, rather than a so-called afterlife, is a physical place. It’s inhabited by the Eternals: humans that have developed telepathy, telepathic technology, and immortality via a device called the Tabernacle. They live a utopian yet static existence, contrasting the dystopian murderscape that Zed comes from, the Outlands. There are multiple Vortexes, but the film only shows us one; situated in what is presumably Britain (the movie was filmed in Ireland).

The Eternals are fascinated and revolted by Zed, most of whom regard him as an animal. One of them — May — realizes Zed’s potential: a Brutal with superior physical and mental attributes, capable of destroying the Eternals. Which is exactly what he brings about; Zed was enabled by another Eternal, Arthur Frayn, to destroy the Eternals and their Vortex, so that a natural order can be restored and the…

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Tony Peak

Science Fiction & Fantasy author, member of SFWA, HWA, & Planetary Society; represented by Ethan Ellenberg