Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Zardoz was Exactly 42 Years Ahead Of It's Time

The Big Floating Guy himself.
Perhaps taking my friend Chris’s lead I recently re-watched Zardoz, John Boorman’s very singular science fiction film from 1973. It’s a simple story: In a post-apocalyptic 2293, it’s the story about Zed (Sean Connery), an “exterminator” who manages to escape the wasteland into a “Vortex.” Behind the force fields of the vortex live the “Eternals,” who guard and catalog the remnants of civilization, all under the protection of The Tabernacle, an artificial intelligence. The mere presence of Zed creates conflict and eventually leads to the destruction of their unnatural order.

I know most people with a knowledge of film have some easily portable ideas about this film, sort of meta-positions. Yes, Sean Connery runs around wearing a silly red diaper. Yes, “Zardoz” is a take on “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, it’s a parable about how nature abhors a vacuum— and will find a way re-establish itself whenever denied. But Zardoz, like Zed himself, is a very clever creation, far more clever than such superficial observations. This film was a breakthrough in several areas— and even has a remarkable solution to a problem that plagues the current state of portable computing.

Burned-out Municipal Centre.
1. Zardoz was the first film to portray what is now a common science-fiction trope: a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The world of this film has been destroyed: civilization has fallen, starving survivors wander blasted hillsides and destroyed cities— preyed on by Exterminators, horsemen chosen by the god Zardoz to check the population of these “Brutals.” The last film to portray people living in an ad-hoc post-apocalyptic society was Alexander Korda’s Things to Come (1940). Sure, the Cold War created plenty of films where the End has Come, but it’s usually a tidy place of empty streets— The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959), On The Beach (also 1959), Five (1951), etc. In Boorman’s 2293 everything outside the Vortex is wrecked and moldy and haunted by The Brutals: grungy, skinny people wearing threadbare clothes. Boorman’s vision no doubt influenced everything in this genre that came after, from A Boy and His Dog (1975) to Mad Max 2 (1983) right up to The Road (2009) and the Terminator series.

Some Eternals enjoying the garden, unconcerned
about the Brutals on the other side of the shield.
2. The immortal inhabitants of the Vortex, the Eternals, live apart from the dying world behind impenetrable periphery shields. The Eternals took it upon themselves to become the custodians of the past— and in doing so completely detached themselves from Humanity itself. It’s a remarkable criticism of Objectivism— Ayn Rand’s philosophy that great people should be left alone to do great things, and compassion and mercy are really a signs of weakness. Avalow, one of the Eternals, explains to Zed how the Vortex came to be— and perfectly defines it as Galt Gulch:

“We took all that was good and made an oasis here. We few— the rich, the powerful, the clever— cut ourselves off to guard the knowledge and treasures of civilization as the world plunged into a dark age. To do this we had to harden our hearts against suffering outside.”

Boorman exposes this sort of exceptional elitism as nothing more than hubris, unnatural folly that can only fail in the end.

Zed utilizes a Wearable to interface with the Mainframe.
3. The Vortex owes it’s (admittedly doomed) existence to The Tabernacle— an artificial intelligence intimately linked to every Eternal that runs and protects the place. The physical presence of The Tabernacle is revealed in the end of the film as (mild spoiler) a crystal the size of a paperweight. But this is not the part I found intriguing. The interface units the Eternals use to communicate are white metal rings topped with a large square crystal. These rings operate for all intents and purposes like perfected smartphones: They can be used to call people, take notes, scan and diagnose, retrieve and display data, and allow Siri-like verbal communication with Tabernacle.

Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) takes notes.
Damn. The form factor is almost perfect!

Ring displays data. Note that in 2293 the Eternals
have adopted a form of Hip-Hop English.
The long and on-going problem we have with iPhones and Androids in the present day is all in the form factor: to use these devices, you have to walk around with it in your hand and stare at it. Situational awareness suffers for this. Smartphones have managed to make a whole generation of people look detached and unsociable. Even a wearable in the form of a watch is an imperfect solution. Humans were simply not designed to be constantly interacting with a lump of plastic in our hands.

May (Sarah Kestelman) performs a retinal scan with her ring.
A RING, however: stroke of genius! you can talk to it and it answers. it can take pictures and interact with the environment. It can project data and displays. and best of all, you can do all these things without being physically impeded by the device. If we all had tidy little rings rather than clunky phones we’d certainly be in a much better place. Our hands would be free! No more distracted walking or driving-- and we’d see the return of quaint notions such as conversational eye contact. I’m sure a ring that was a portable computer looked like speculative science fiction in 1973, but in 2015 they look like they’re about 5 years away from market reality.

Well-written speculative science fiction is a tricky thing: it does not always reveal itself when first presented, but after a measure of time the world catches up with the creator’s vision.

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