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SIMON SAYS: What is a "bad" movie? Not GREEN LANTERN. And definitely not ZARDOZ

by Matthew Seitz
June 30, 2011 6:00 AM
17 Comments
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[Editor's note: This piece marks the debut of SIMON SAYS, a weekly column about popular culture.]

By Simon Abrams
PressPlay contributor

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.

Yes.

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.

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17 Comments

  • Dax | October 13, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    I'm really late to the party, but I just saw Green Lantern, and frankly I hated it almost as much as X-Men: First Class. I'm here to ask you, Simon, what is it you're seeing that I'm not? You claim that the filmmakers seemed to care about this story, but as I was watching it, I couldn't help but imagine those involved in the production going over Green Lantern comics and saying things like, "Can you believe there are losers who are actually into this shit?" and, "Well, at least we can make some money off these assholes." The movie felt like some of the worst kind of generic, paint by numbers filmmaking. It seemed to want to be Iron Man meets Batman Begins with a dash of Superman. For me, watching it was like two hours of being called a stupid child to my face for even wanting to so much as see a movie called Green Lantern. I don't enjoy being this negative, so again, I have to ask, what did you see that I'm missing?

  • Adam Zanzie | July 1, 2011 5:20 AMReply

    The more I've seen Zardoz on the Fox Movie Channel, the more my appreciation for it has grown. Glad to see you're a passionate fan, Simon -- and that you believe it's more than just a great "cult movie." If 2001 were being celebrated under such crass terms today, I'd be uber-frustrated.

    Still, I must confess: when I first saw Zardoz at age 14, I hated it. I thought I had never seen anything more ridiculous in my life. Sean Connery, you see, was my favorite actor during my youth, and I felt a little, well... unclean, watching him run around in a red speedo for such a long period of time. And combined with the movie's deliberately weird blend of sex and violence, well, let's just say I was probably not mature enough to handle it. But I do remember consulting Ebert's review shortly afterwards and being disappointed that he didn't dislike the film more.

    To be fair, Ebert's review could have been a whole lot worse. He gives the movie 2 1/2 stars, which generally means that he liked certain elements of the movie but wanted a lot more from it. I can't say I agree with the notion that just because a movie is "interesting" means it's automatically good.

    Ebert will often complain, for example, that a filmmaker like Terry Gilliam makes movies that feel like a series of unfocused ideas in search of a plot. He probably felt the same way about Boorman and Zardoz, and personally I don't blame him. Zardoz *is* a movie so strange that it takes awhile to appreciate. But like I said, Ebert could have been a lot harsher.

    I'm more prone to picking a bone with Ebert over movies he reviewed in the 1970's that he didn't really bother to engage with. Anyone who knows me well knows I'm a mega-fan of Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973), and I'll forever regard Ebert with sad eyes because he panned it in an absolutely scathing once-star review -- even though he walked out of it after a mere 20 minutes.

  • Jason | June 30, 2011 12:52 PMReply

    I totally disagree. I found Thor to be fluffy fan boy fun for what it was worth and X-Men:FC to be "interesting" in the way you describe In that it took the core concept and truly attempted to do something different with it. It wasa little stiff for mee but I admired it's ambition and sincerity and the performances.
    As for GL, other than Hector Hammond I was quite literally bored by the whole thing. The things you point to as interesting and eccentric come directly from the comic if I'm not mistaken and the movie may have been better by going full on space opera. I think we got more Asgard then we got OA and I think GL suffers because of it.

  • shane | June 30, 2011 9:30 AMReply

    Ian just remembering that ending is a tremendous thought to handle..thanks for bringing it back to my mind. I have always had a copy of Zardoz around. That alone shows how much it means to me. I saw it when it came out in theaters as was a thrilled then as I have been in repeat watchings throughout the years. Sad it's been dissed but that's how some folks are...I hope Green Lantern is all I want it to be..the trailers hit many marks I remember and love from the comic book so I've got a lot of faith. It's odd living with a film critic and paying less and less attention to most of their opinions as time goes on...as I said earlier on another page somewhere out there in the dark recesses of the internet....I watch for fun...or as the detective sez in another favorite of mine 'Night of The Creeps' THRILL ME!

  • scalawag | June 30, 2011 8:55 AMReply

    "But I do think the tendency of even the film’s fans laugh to each other that “the penis is evil” indicates that Zardoz is considered more of a camp artifact than a potently strange film that also happens to be worth serious consideration."

    Camp film is almost always worth serious consideration. I assume you think that, given your point and how "camp," "kitsch" and "bad" have pretty much come to mean, well, "bad." But I thought I'd mention it.

    My problem in general is that people tend to sling around "bad" and "bad film." While it doesn't mean much, I'd rather Ebert called Zardoz an interesting film than a bad one, because, frankly, people rarely define or discuss what they mean by "bad" anymore. Combine that with a climate in which realism is ascendant as an aesthetic point of view, and anything that's not "realistic" is "bad" and whole genres become "bad" in themselves.

  • Ryan Meade | June 30, 2011 8:55 AMReply

    Of course I meant to type @Matthew. The irony.

  • Ryan Meade | June 30, 2011 8:54 AMReply

    @Simon @Mark Thanks for the quick correction! That has provided my pedantry buzz for the evening.

  • zuckerman | June 30, 2011 8:47 AMReply

    Did I read your summation correctly:

    "That’s what criticism should strive for: making films...look good"

    What?

  • Matthew Seitz | June 30, 2011 8:36 AMReply

    @Ryan: Good point. I just went in and removed that modifier "American."

  • Simon Abrams | June 30, 2011 8:36 AMReply

    Ryan: fair point. Will change that.

  • Ryan Meade | June 30, 2011 8:28 AMReply

    "... regarded more as a curio than an honest-to-goodness landmark of American ‘70s cinema..."

    Irrespective of its quality, it would be difficult to establish Zardoz as a landmark of American '70s cinema given that it wasn't produced in America and doesn't appear to have had any Americans amongst its principal cast and crew. Its producers, director and stars were British and it was filmed in Ireland with what appears to be an exclusively British and Irish cast.

  • Oplia | June 30, 2011 8:26 AMReply

    Quote: "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. "

    Really? And you thought Green Lantern delivered that? Coming from a director, Martin Campbell, who has said he's leaving the film franchise?

    Have you read the messy script of Green Lantern verbatim?

    "Hal, you have courage, because... you're courageous."

    ^ Yeah that's investing in the script.

    Not a well written piece of article. Sorry.

  • Flowers | June 30, 2011 8:23 AMReply

    I personally can't believe you took the time to write this? As if these films have any merit what-so-ever. They don't and for you to some how say this wasn't so bad compared to this drivel... well I think you should spend more time reading than watching films. No offense. It's just, I'm the generation that went to the theater to see films like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The Princess Bride, Robocop, Die Hard and on and on and on. This current crop of tourist trap cinema is just absolutely god awful and to support films like TF3 and X-Blah Men, Thor-ny bush and Cars-wash 2 could be argued immoral.

    Ever since The Lord of the Rings every tent pole film has been 'lord of the rings'. Peter Jackson both did us a service and disservice by raising the scope of tent pole films. Personally, the current filmmaking collective in Studio cinema is depressing and I can't believe this is what we peddle as entertainment.

    I'm a grown man so I'm partial to maturity and stories that actually entertain as opposed to the absolute skull fuck my brain and wallet get every time I go to the cinema. (btw - I'm not using skull fuck in a positive light. I needed to clarify cause' I know a lot of people think the opposite when they describe studio cine-trash because of AICN).

    --

    --

  • Simon Abrams | June 30, 2011 8:09 AMReply

    Ah, now you're testing my commitment to my thesis, Ian. :)

    While I enjoy some of Anderson's earlier works, I feel like he's on auto-pilot with his RESIDENT EVIL movies. I mean, he's investing in something he cares about obviously but he's showing his love for the material through techniques that I think he can do better than.

    PANDORUM...was ok. At times. I agree. But it kind of collapses for me in the end.

    I can furnish you with links to pieces I wrote about both films if you're interested.

    But again, thanks for the praise and the attention.

  • Ian Grey | June 30, 2011 7:53 AMReply

    btw--I was telling Matt about this film I stumbled on that every critic save Justine Elias despised, PANDORUM. ("It steals from Alien!" It steals more from Firefly but *so what*?)

    Okay--the first act blows. But from there it just goes insane with invention, atmosphere, actual disturbing bits, all leading to *an actual new idea*.

    Meanwhile, I'll go my grave defending RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE, alone with only Armond White (yikes) to accompany me. (It steals from The Matrix but *so what*? It's better than both Matrix sequels and has true, next-gen action sequences, true notions of spatiality, if that's even a word.)

    What I asked Matt was--Are a boatload of critics losing the ability to 'read' genre?

  • Ian Grey | June 30, 2011 7:41 AMReply

    Fine piece, bravo.

    Honestly, to this day, I don't get the problem with Connery's dress (or lack of it). Part of what Boorman was doing, I think, was obliterating what we expect of SF--oh god, I'm gonna say it--tropes.

    So there's no fancy machines of blinking computer lights or anything, just some crystals and such.

    I think the end montage of Zardoz is incredibly emotional. The use of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th as Connery and Rampling age and turn to dust...it's so lovely.

    It's just such a rich film. People didn't and still don't have critical anvils to bring to the film. You're right--it hurts from dismissal and over-praise that isn't thought out.

  • Common Sense | June 30, 2011 7:30 AMReply

    You must've missed this:

    "Green Lantern's Script - with all the Plot Holes recapped by the Gray Power of Common Sense":

    Link: http://t.co/Ljs4Mb7 - Bwahahahaha!

    Yup, after reading that, Green Lantern deserves it's awful 27% Rotten Tomato and 39 / 100 Metacritic Score.

    So much so, it's in the Top 10 worst Box Office Flops of 2011 so far:

    Link: http://t.co/9Xv75gX - Yup it's a flopper!

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