Film Review: The Zero Theorem

At the age of 73, Terry Gilliam has just signed off his “Orwellian triptych” that began with Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995) and ends with his most philosophical act as of yet. In The Zero Theorem we embark for a futuristic London; a colourful and hyper-connected world where pizza boxes sing when opened and every day seems to be Mardi Gras. All is well except for Qohen Leth (played by Academy winner Christoph Waltz) a sheltered employee of a programming company called Mancom who refers to himself in the royal “we”. Indeed, Qohen is not only at odds with the world that surrounds him (a classic figure in Gilliam’s films) but also with himself. His identity is a blank, a black hole – a recurring image in the film- where his memories and personality seem to have been lost forever. Any external feature that could enrich his character has disappeared; he lost his hair but can’t remember when, his “diet” only allows him tasteless food, he doesn’t comply with the eccentric fashion of his time and so on.  Still Qohen has one, though fragile, hope. He’s waiting for a telephone call that will tell him the meaning of life itself. But this precarious balance is blown to pieces when, after many insistent requests, Qohen is given permission to work at home the condition being he starts working on the mysterious “Zero Theorem”- a project aiming to mathematically prove that all is for nothing. In the spiral of confusion and metaphysical despair that ensues, Qohen is forced to reach out and reconsider his outlook of the world and human relationships, with for instance, the intrusion in his life of Bainsley (played by a somewhat simplistic Mélanie Laurent), a modern-day escort who only practices some sort of virtual role playing called “tantric biotelemetric interfacing”.

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Gilliam has always had this brilliant ability to speak substantially of our world while being incredibly entertaining, funny and creative. This was once again his goal for The Zero Theorem, although I think the film has reached the limit of such a balance.  On the one hand it offers a whimsical and exuberant universe packed with quirky details, a rich photography (the work of Gilliam’s recurrent collaborator Nicola Pecorini) with a camera that takes on a videogame-like aesthetic. Yet on the other hand, it develops interesting themes of individuality and identity in opposition to the growing virtuality of human interactions, the surface as opposed to the substantial, the old versus the new. For instance, Qohen lives in a dark, abandoned church, cluttered with faded signs of his past, a silent sanctuary oddly unaffected by the noise of the lively neighbourhood and of the next-door sex shop. But just like this church, The Zero Theorem is cluttered with details enslaved by Gilliam’s purpose which is where the flaw lies. His message is overpowering and the aesthetical arguments are too obvious and repetitive, especially if the viewer is familiar with Gilliam’s work. For instance, the decision to introduce real-life elements, like iPads, that would somehow make the connexion between this dystopian world and ours. This simply feels demonstrative and contrived and though it may only be a small detail, it reflects the general undercurrent of the film. Because Gilliam chose to approach a complex subject, that is the metaphysical implications of a modern world where technology is overtaking every aspect of human life, he has put in place every mechanism and trick in his book to achieve any kind of significant outcome. Surely this crooked result is also due to certain weaknesses in the script, written by university professor Pat Rushin, nevertheless I can’t help but feel that Gilliam himself is petering out. Regardless, worth noting is Waltz’s moving acting and more impressively, in my opinion, David Thewlis’ (Naked, Kingdom of Heaven) supporting performance as Joby, Qohen’s supervisor at Mancom; a seemingly carefree and diligent employee, who embodies the only serious philosophical counterpoint to Qohen’s distress.

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The Zero Theorem is unquestionably a very entertaining film, complete with a star-studded cast, compelling visuals and every inexplicable facet of Gilliam’s aesthetic. It reminds us what it’s like for a filmmaker to actually be engaged in the world and to give an artistic form to that engagement. But here, I believe that Gilliam tried to go too far too fast. In my opinion, his understanding of our society is slightly out-dated, shallow and in this instance he lacked inventiveness and perspective.

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