IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 107 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the future, Qohen Leth is a reclusive ‘entity cruncher’ [deciphering digitally-rendered real-life conundrums] working for the faceless ManCom corporation. He wants to work from home, primarily because he’s been waiting his whole life for someone to ring his landline to finish telling him something. After attending a party where he receives unwelcome advances from a cyber prostitute called Bainsley, management gives him his wish as long as Qohen will work on a new project: cracking a code that may unlock the secrets of life itself, but will probably also drive him mad while doing it. Qohen begins his work, but his grip on reality seems to fracture….
The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus ended with its title character, old and dishevelled, selling toy replicas of his theatre on a street corner. It would have almost been a perfect bittersweet, and very symbolic, ending to the film career of Terry Gilliam, who I’m sure said he only had two or three films left in him at least a decade or so ago. However, here he is with another film, though the 73 year old filmmaker was actually originally going to make The Zero Theorem in 2009 with Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Biel and Al Pacino. He ended up making The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus instead, but instead of The Zero Theorem becoming yet another tasty unmade Gilliam project [Jack Snyder’s Watchmen turned out surprisingly well, but if only Gilliam had made it!], here it is. Now it’s my belief that Gilliiam is one of the greatest filmmakers still working today, and if you’re not convinced of my love for his work, check out my article about the great man’s movies here, where I hope my adoration for them is evident.
Of course the release of a new Gilliam film shamelessly gives me an excuse to promote something I wrote for this website ages ago, but if you’re not up for reading it let me just make it clear once that I absolutely and totally love Gilliam’s stuff, from the unbridled imagination to the craziness to the romanticism to the constant themes of the power of the imagination and escaping from reality to…..well, I’m sure you get the idea. I feel I have to emphasise this because my review of The Zero Theorem won’t be a rave one like it would be for every other Gilliam [okay, maybe not The Brothers Grimm, though it’s still fun] film. In fact, it may read a bit negative. That’s the trouble I suppose when a filmmaker’s output is generally so high. The Zero Theorem is still a Gilliam film through and through and therefore more interesting than a lot of whatever else is coming out at the moment, but I feel it’s also a bit of a disappointment and doesn’t really add much to his filmography. While all his films are similar to each other and have the same themes, making Gilliam a genuine auteur if an auteur is somebody who makes the same film over and over again, The Zero Theorem really does feel a rehash of earlier material, especially Brazil, of which it almost seems like an earlier, simpler version that Gilliam later developed and improved to make his 1985 masterpiece, despite it being made much later. Now I don’t want to sound all negative because there is a lot to like and a lot of interest here, and I guess that if The Zero Theorem had come from another director I’d probably praise it all, but one just expects more from Gilliam, even if one can’t expect him to keep churning out great movies!
The Zero Theorem certainly opens superbly with a shot of a black hole and what seems to be a man in space, only it’s actually a man looking at a computer screen. The man is Qohen Leth, and he’s certainly one of Gilliam’s most intriguing protagonists even if he does have a shaved head like Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys, which is probably the Gilliam film The Zero Theorem echoes most after Brazil, especially visually. He’s extremely solitary to the point of not even wanting to touch people, likes to talk about himself as “we”, is desperate for a certain phone call which he is sure is coming, and is clearly deeply troubled. It probably goes without saying that the superb Christoph Waltz is brilliant in the role, adding another outstanding performance to his resume. He helps you warm to this eccentric, even cold, character. He leaves the condemned church he lives in [his bed lies between two rows of organ pipes] to walk through the town, and in a couple of minutes we get a really vivid future world which is full of neglect, graffiti and ruins being everywhere, but also has live advertisements all over the place. The bright colours recall The Fifth Element, though this world feels more lived-in and more believable, if oddly 90’s.
Sadly we don’t get to explore this world and most of the film ends up taking place inside Qohen’s abode. This is possiblyas a result of the fairly low budget, and it’s kind of interesting to see Gilliam do what is almost a chamber piece, but the director feels hemmed in, and there’s far too much footage of Qohen at his computer trying to solve the ‘zero theorem’, especially annoying since Pat Rushin’s script is full of technical gobblygook [it would have better without it] without actually telling us much. It seems that he, and the mysterious boss just called Management [Matt Damon, who at one point wears the most amazing zebra suit that blends in with the settee he is sitting on], are trying to find the meaning of life, but it gets a bit tedious. The solitary Qohen’s work is constantly interrupted by two visitors who drop in from time to time. There’s Management’s teenage son Bob [Lucas Hedge], a computer whizz who seems to want to help Qohen, but is he? Then there’s Bainsley [Melanie Thierry, who I’ve liked since her haunting appearance in The Legend Of 1900 but has not got the big break she deserves], a cyber hooker [you can only have sex with her virtually] who tries to draw Qohen into her world. There are some visually beautiful scenes where Qohen is with Bainsley in a tropical beach paradise, but the love story isn’t developed enough to make us care much. Towards the end, it really does seem like Gilliam is consciously remaking Brazil, and the theme of one man against the system, a system which is oppressive, is as pertinent as it was in 1985, but I doubt most fans of Brazil [I count it amongst the best ten films ever made] would really want to see their beloved classic done by the same director on a much smaller scale.
Of course many of the ideas have been employed many times going back to Strange Days and even beyond, but Gilliam does offer pertinent commentary on the way we are headed with our increasing love for and dominance by things of a digital nature. One scene at a party where everyone is walking around with phones, tablets and laptops plus headphones, all in their own little worlds, comments sadly on such matters just as effectively as the slightly overrated Her, but because Her is more solemn and self-consciously serious, it gets more praise for doing so. There is some of the expected Gilliam wacky humour in The Zero Theorem, if perhaps less than expected. A bizarre tall man and fat dwarf [Gilliam had to fit one in somewhere] team turn up every now and again to act, well, like characters in a Gilliam film, while David Thewlis not only overacts as usual but tries to be like Michael Palin. Tilda Swinton makes one of her funniest appearances as Dr Shrink-rom, a virtual psychiatrist. Unusually, the Scottish actress has a thick Scottish accent for a change. There are also some great small details throughout, like a park wall with endless signs forbidding things, Gilliam again showing the way we seem to be headed especially in this increasingly restrictive country. Of course the sets tend to be as chaotic looking as possible and Gilliam still has that fascination with things like wires and tubes.
Carlo Poggioli deserves a mention for his stunning costume designs and George Fenton supplies a fine score which is sometimes quite beautiful as well as appropriately quirky. There’s lots to enjoy in The Zero Thereom for the filmgoer after something a bit different, but it makes even less commercially minded concessions than normal, while Gilliam fans will have seen much of it before, meaning that the result isn’t really satisfactory whichever way you approach it. Still, Gilliam coasting is still Gilliam, and the man’s fingerprints are still all over his new film. He’s still out there doing his thing, and cinema is a better place for it. The Zero Theorem also has the most gorgeous final shot [even if it’s partly CGI] in ages. Gilliam’s kind of been there before, but it still works.