The Zero Theorem (2013)

Apologies for the intermission. I was away on holiday for the last week, and though I’d intended to put a few posts up, in the end I didn’t get around to it. Have sort of found myself spending rather more time proscratinating than writing, so I’m a bit behind. Just need to get back into the writing habit…

There was a point, back when I started going to the movies, when a new film by Terry Gilliam was something that got people properly excited, and more to the point, got me quite excited. But that was the mid-1990s and a lot of time and projects (filmed and unfilmed) have passed through his career since then. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m not at university anymore that I’ve missed the frenetic and excited discussion about this new film, or maybe it’s that Gilliam’s peculiar vision is no longer aligned with the zeitgeist, but when a friend suggested going to see The Zero Theorem, I had to look up just what it was. So just to recap: it’s the new Terry Gilliam film.

Once it begins, though, there’s certainly no doubting the singular auterist vision at work here. The frenzied, stylised set design, bright colours, and repurposed junk aesthetic are all quintessential Gilliam. In many ways, this film visually recalls 12 Monkeys (1995) most of all, with its bald-headed holy fool protagonist (here Christoph Waltz where once it was Bruce Willis). His sleeping mask recalls that worn to travel through time in the earlier film, although the impenetrable bureaucracy brings to mind Brazil (1985) too, so it’s no surprise to see these films quoted in reviews. Even if this new film isn’t explicitly a sequel, it is intended to be grouped with them, from what I understand, and that makes sense.

Waltz’s Qohen Leth is a programmer of sorts, working a Kafkaesque desk job within a confounding hierarchy to achieve nothing particularly tangible. He is pestered by his boss Joby (David Thewlis) and catches glimpses of the chief, known as “Management” (Matt Damon). They want him to work on the titular theorem, a task which has been helpfully gamified with chunks of flying equations in a virtual reality world, and Management’s son Bob (Lucas Hedges) is drafted in to help. Leth is obsessed with taking a phonecall which seems to promise some hope to him of explaining that his life has some purpose, while the implication for solving the theorem is that it will prove the ultimate futility of life — though I concede too that I am easily confused.

There’s a whirl of colourful incident, at Leth’s work, at his home (a converted church), at parties and on the street, which chiefly serve to further Gilliam’s carnivalesque vision of life in the city (presumably London, though the film was made in Romania). The actors bounce around gamely, particularly Thewlis, an on-screen psychiatrist played by a daffy Tilda Swinton, and Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a sort-of-love-interest for Leth. There’s a slightly troubling undercurrent of objectification in Bainsley’s characterisation as essentially the prostitute with a heart of gold archetype, though of course the company Leth works for is called Mancom, and this is a deeply patriarchal world.

It’s undoubtedly all very exhausting to watch, though that’s very much in keeping with Gilliam’s filmography. There are some nice ideas somewhere in here, and the set design is as fabulously detailed and packed with all kinds of witty puns as ever, but it has the feeling of something a bit hurried and unstructured. In some ways the title hints at that: this is like an idea of a film more than something neatly finished off, but it’s at least good to see a film that has plenty of ideas, even if they don’t always seem to bear fruit.

The Zero Theorem film posterCREDITS
Director Terry Gilliam; Writer Pat Rushin; Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini; Starring Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 17 March 2014.