DIR: Terry Gilliam • WRI: Pat Rushin • PRO: Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck • DOP: Nicola Pecorini • ED: Mick Audsley • MUS: George Fenton • DES: David Warren • CAST: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges
First off, let’s just say it: Terry Gilliam’s movies are not for everyone. Much like Wes Anderson or Terence Malick, there is often a certain knowledge level of the director’s previous work and style required before buying a ticket for the Terry-train. This is certainly more true with The Zero Theorem, as it is his avowed final part of the dystopian trilogy that includes Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995). However, if you’re willing to suspend your cynicism and follow Gilliam into the rabbit-hole, there is much to genuinely love about this movie.
The story centres on Qohen (a fantastically quirky Christoph Waltz), who refers to himself using various group descriptors – ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘ourselves’ etc. – in a frantic attempt to patch together into one being the jumble of neuroses and phobias that plague his monotonous existence. Qohen inhabits a typically Gilliam futuristic landscape, one which seems to exist outside of any knowledge of present technology or even the internet – far more connected with his 1985 vision of the future than a 2014 reimagining. However, this world is total Gilliam, and it felt a comfortable (if nostalgic) fit in the darkened cinema as the familiar horrible, noisy, disconnected, impersonal metropolitan landscape unfolded onscreen. A reclusive computer genius, the concern which drives Qohen from his cloister into this horror of humanity each day is the idea that somehow Management will grant his heart’s desire: to work from home. This simple request would rescue him from the hellish daily grind of the cubicle, and allow him time to await a phone call he is convinced will tell him his purpose in life. Eventually he gets his wish, in the form of a doomed project which has brought anyone who has worked on it to the brink of insanity. He must prove the Zero Theorem – the central question of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’…to coin a phrase!
Tempted by the supposed solitude he can now enjoy, Qohen is instead slowly brought back into the world by various intrusions into his closely-monitored, meagre existence. His dim-witted sycophantic manager Joby (David Thewlis) becomes an attempted friend; Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) is assigned/switched-on to keep him sane; and Management sends wilful and disrespectful teenager Bob (Lucas Hedges) to further expand his tiny world. His most important relationship blossoms with the beautiful and untrustworthy Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry, absolutely chewing the screen), who brings a sexual and romantic element to his otherwise sparse life.
Basically the overarching story is fairly bare, and exists purely to allow Qohen to explore questions of philosophy and hope in a world of oppressive technology. There isn’t much new of note in the movie, and it doesn’t raise questions that haven’t been asked a hundred times over. This, at times, can make the film feel a little clunky – and perhaps a little out of its time. The inhuman institutions of power and intersecting realities are par for the course with Gilliam, and it doesn’t quite manage to feel as refreshing or original as the first two parts of his dystopian trilogy.
BUT it has to be said that this is Gilliam’s best movie for years, and it looks and feels like an exciting re-entry into the mind of a man who imagines the worst, but hopes for the best. The Zero Theorem might not set the world alight, but it is somehow both comforting and exhilarating to know that filmmakers like Terry Gilliam are still out there, flying the flag for nonconformity and chaotic beauty.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Zero Theorem is released on 14th March 2014