[Editor's note: This piece marks the debut of SIMON SAYS, a weekly column about popular culture.]
By Simon Abrams
When Roger Ebert first reviewed Zardoz back in 1974, he half-heartedly dismissed the film as being, “an exercise in self-indulgence (if often an interesting one) by [director John] Boorman, who more or less had carte blanche to do a personal project after his immensely successful Deliverance.” My mind reeled as I read this line: how could an “interesting” film be so easily dismissed? Ebert complains that Boorman puts a lot of heavy concepts into Zardoz, but seems reluctant to take them seriously himself. He then lists a series of wacky things that happen in the film; there's a passing mention of an erotic “sight gag” and a “combination shoot-out and mercy-killing spree.” From his review, it’s hard to tell what Ebert meant when he wrote that the film is "interesting" considering that he’s mostly listing elements he finds hard to take.
Of all the superlatives one can use when praising a film, to say a film is “interesting” is the most non-committal. It is also, in some ways, the most peculiar. Surely a film cannot be all bad if it is interesting. And if its interesting parts are truly worthwhile, then why treat it like just another mediocre film?
This is the fate that befell Green Lantern. Metacritic's consensus ranks it with a meager score of 39 out of 100, as opposed to X-Men: First Class’s score of 64 and Thor’s 59. The difference is even more pronounced on Rotten Tomatoes, where X-Men: First Class has a score of 87%, Thor 77%, and Green Lantern trailing with 27%. My taste must be out-of-step with consensus; I found the uneven eccentricity of Green Lantern — which was directed by Martin Campbell, of No Escape, Goldeneye and Casino Royale — vastly more "interesting" than the other two films' machine-tooled smoothness. Give me Campbell's film, with its overstuffed plot lines and gaping plot holes, over a slick but lifeless super-hero movie like Thor or X-Men: First Class.That takes an ephemeral inspiration that I never saw in either of the two aforementioned Marvel Comics films. For a movie to be bad — to be truly worthy of being dismissed outright as a “bad film” — I need to feel as though the filmmakers don’t believe in whatever they’re peddling. Thor and X-Men: First Class don’t strike me as works where the screenwriters or the directors involved cared enough to invest some part of themselves in the script. There's no unique identity to either movie — no idiosyncratic traits that make them worth revisiting later.
At least Green Lantern has the guts to be flamboyant, and has a couple of spectacular set pieces and two very strong lead performances from Ryan Reynolds and Peter Sarsgaard. Though the film often struggles to take off, the juxtaposition of Reynolds' fearless Hal Jordan and Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond is a fruitful comparison, one that the film's screenwriters were wise to make. Furthermore, the film feels like it's more of a piece than the Marvel Comics films: there may be a subplot or three too many in Green Lantern, but all of the inside references to mysterious people or objects that old fans should get a kick out of are actually incorporated into the story as plot points. Thor and X-Men: First Class, in contrast, are watchable and feature commendable performances from their respective casts, but they lack the ambition or central pathos that drive Green Lantern. And as boilerplate origin stories, they just don’t stay with me after a point. As a comic book nerd, I don’t particularly need any of these films to tell me who their characters are—I already know. But when a movie is good enough to show me a character or a story in a new light — as Green Lantern does — no matter how troubled it may be in other aspects, I don't think it can be considered "bad."
But what about a film whose reputation as a “bad movie” precedes it? What about the films that are supposed to be so flat-out bad that any attempt to defend them is automatically considered suspect? What about Zardoz?
How exactly do you solve a problem like Zardoz? John Boorman’s psychedelic sci-fi opus has become infamous, regarded more as a curio than an honest-to-goodness landmark of ‘70s cinema because it’s still dismissed outright as a bad movie. The film’s token status as a wonky kooky crazy film has been established for decades now. There seems little chance that it will ever achieve mass acceptance. At best it's treated as an ambitious failure: apparently, its themes are sprawling and its humor is too off-puttingly kitschy. Take this piece, which just name-drops Zardoz and assumes that readers will automatically understand it as shorthand for "indisputably bad film." How can one even argue with unqualified assumptions like that? Surely Zardoz is too interesting to be truly bad.
Admittedly, many of Zardoz’s fans have inadvertently done more harm than help to the film by treating it like a specialty cult item. There’s a reason why whenever you mention the film to someone who’s seen it, they’ll chirrup a loaded line like, “The gun is good; the penis is evil.” It’s like a secret handshake for fans who probably don’t even remember the meaning of the line anyway. I’m not trying to suggests that Zardoz’s cult is witless, nor am I trying to sweep the out-there-ness of Zardoz under a rug. You can’t make a movie where Sean Connery runs around with a ponytail, a loaded pistol, a bikini bottom, go-go boots and a bondage harness look normal. Still, the tendency of even the film's fans to repeat lines such as “The gun is good…the penis is evil…” suggests that even admirers have bought into the idea that Zardoz is more of a camp artifact than a potently strange film that happens to be worth serious consideration. The movie needs rescuing from detractors and defenders alike. Its revolutionary stance is only tempered by its intensely strange dedication to a continually devolving scenario. Boorman deliberately made it impossible to ever feel completely comfortable with Zardoz by concluding it with the end of human civilization. Connery’s character is an agent of chaos who can only create a brand new world by first destroying all the cultural treasures that the futuristic civilization he infiltrates has hoarded and kept to themselves over time. To expect a film this volatile to be tonally consistent is like expecting a Stan Brakhage film to have a linear storyline: it’s never gonna happen.
I suspect that Ebert was reluctant to outright dismiss Zardoz partly because it’s a Boorman film. He mentions Leo the Last and Deliverance in such a way as to suggest that Boorman was stepping away from the qualities that Ebert believed made him great. But I don’t understand how one can appreciate Boorman’s earlier explorations of man’s self-destructive tendencies and the power that comes from devolving and embracing one’s animal instincts and not care for Zardoz. It is in many ways the most vibrant expression of Boorman’s fascination with the problems and advantages of becoming more feral in order to become more civilized. In that sense, it's an incredibly personal film, just a few steps removed from Alejandro Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain in its incendiary, get-out-your-pitchforks-and-start-a-revolution message. Its frothing-at-the-mouth madness needs context to be fully appreciated. That’s what criticism should strive for: making films like Zardoz, or a vastly more mainstream but still eccentric superhero film like Green Lantern, look good — and in general make films whose faults and/or merits might otherwise be inaccessible more accessible.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.