Another year, another Terry Gilliam slice of imaginative dystopian hell. That perhaps sounds weary, but despite the excellent visuals and a terrific performance from Christoph Waltz (in retrospect, a man destined to work with Gilliam) THE ZERO THEOREM still feels a bit humdrum for a director who is a visionary at his best.
Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a recluse of considerable technical and mathematical aptitude who crunches ‘entities’ (essentially complicated sets of numbers and equations) for his employers Mancom. Under the instruction of Management (Matt Damon) and his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), Qohen begins working on ‘The Zero Theorem’, a mathematical problem describing the Universe’s fate that has sent many a man barmy. All through this, Qohen expects a mysterious phone call that will tell him his own fate and purpose.
The most obvious touchstone for Gilliam here (along with the ongoing Fellini influences present in his most visually-driven films) is himself: specifically, his film BRAZIL. The same feeling of bureaucratic omnipotence is there, with worker drones performing monotonous tasks in a dystopian metropolis under the guidance of authoritarian influences. This isn’t to say THE ZERO THEOREM doesn’t have something to say, and even if Gilliam isn’t repeating himself verbatim he is perhaps paraphrasing his previous work.
…even if Gilliam isn’t repeating himself verbatim he is perhaps paraphrasing his previous work.
The world in question feels unquestionably Gilliam but also strangely anachronistic. Despite the use of disguised Apple hardware everywhere, and funny nods to the modern counter-establishment movements (“Occupy Wall Street” is a capitalist marketing slogan in this world), this still feels like the future as foreseen in the 1980s. The ‘crunching’ process seems to resemble Tetris reimagined for the Nintendo 64. But although this familiarity is disappointing, THE ZERO THEOREM is subtly different under the bonnet.
Although this familiarity is disappointing, THE ZERO THEOREM is subtly different under the bonnet.
There is something of the anxiety and emotionlessness of modern humans reflected in the society of THE ZERO THEOREM. The fact that Management’s ominous portraits come attached with the slogan “Everything Is Under Control” is the first thing to belie a different core concern. As Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley flirts with Qohen, the other party-goers dance around with headphones in and their eyes glued to iPads. Every character is anxious. Qohen waits for someone of indeterminate celestiality to simply tell him his purpose. He laments that he feels no joy. Is it the same for all the inhabitants of Gilliam’s neon and primary colour hell? The film is in danger of exhibiting little joy itself, with Lucas Hedges’ Bob (Management’s son) needed to inject some much needed enthusiasm from the halfway point (besides this film being the only one I know of where you’ll find Tilda Swinton rapping in a Scottish accent).
This is not a nightmare about becoming a cog in a bureaucratic machine like BRAZIL, or about being imprisoned away from imagination like the opening of TIME BANDITS – it isn’t a reflection on madness and cruel inevitability like 12 MONKEYS. THE ZERO THEOREM is entirely caught up with humankind’s frustrated desire to find a purpose for life. At the core of THE ZERO THEOREM, wrapped up in the circularity of Qohen’s quest and Management’s assignments is the idea that the concept of sentient life is a massive practical joke. In this respect, the film resembles a nihilistic Gilliam-penned version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
The eye-popping dystopia is too comfortably familiar to be unsettling; the best jokes too staid to leaven the bleakness; the well-crafted environment too retro in its futurism to engage the audience. The delicious weirdness, surreal gallows humour and overt satirical winks are present and sharp, and Waltz is as terrific as any Gilliam lead before him; THE ZERO THEOREM is far from adding up to nothing. But the underlying message feels both contemporary and passé, and for a Gilliam film it feels oddly prosaic.