The Zero Theorem (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2013)
I have always had quite the love-hate relationship with Terry Gilliam’s output as a director. On the surface-level it appears I should love most of his films, as he is a visual genius who almost exclusively works in my favorite genre, Science Fiction. He also came into the world of film gradually while working with Monty Python on a whole bevy of visual products and designs. I’m always excited to see his name attached to new projects and scripts, but ultimately I am usually underwhelmed by his films. His much-acclaimed Brazil serves as a tidy example of how I view his career: beautifully striking in terms of both set design and cinematography, but void of any real substance inhabited in the characters or plot. Gilliam freely admits that Brazil is a work inspired by and derived from 1984, but he will also tell you in that same breath that he has never actually read 1984! I went into my screening of The Zero Theorem with high hopes despite that anecdote, as, unlike with most of his previous films, this movie has an independent screenwriter. Gilliam’s forward-thinking visuals combined with writing from someone who (hopefully!) is attentive to plot development and characterization? A combination worth slightly raising my low expectations for!
There were other factors drawing me to watch this particular film, and probably the most influential was Christoph Waltz’s involvement. I was first introduced to his great talents in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained which both netted him Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. Despite loving and watching both of those films numerous times, I have yet to really been exposed to him in any other roles, so I was very excited to see what could do with a top billing. Here, he is an eccentric hermit named Qohen (Q – no U! – o – h – e – n, he repeatedly insists throughout the movie), believed by his boss (Matt Damon) to be the only one capable of proving the titular theorem. Waltz puts in a very admirable performance as the loner weirdo and since his character is in every single scene that is quite the relief. With roles like this it is sometimes very easy to get caught up in the tics and unique traits of the character but Waltz never goes too far with Qohen, displaying a wide range of emotions and tones. Gilliam has always seemed to draw out interesting performances from his big-name actors, whether it be Al Pacino as the janitor in Brazil or Bruce Willis as the unhinged time traveler of 12 Monkeys. Damon as Qohen’s mystical boss is an entertaining few minutes, but unfortunately the emphasis there is on few, as Damon’s screen time is limited.
As evidenced by the screenshot above, this is a very good looking movie with comedic futuristic flares. True to the rest of Gilliam’s oeuvre, it comes across as pretty empty and a little bit daft. Waltz’s character spends the entire film waiting for a phone call (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?) that he believes will give his otherwise tepid life meaning. For the first 1/3rd of the film there is heavy-handed commentary on the plight of the modern office drone in the form of Qohen using what looks like a Tetris-like 3D video game for his job. He complains constantly that he’d be more productive at home and is finally allowed to make the switch when he is assigned to prove The Zero Theorem. It’s at this point that the Qohen-as-a-cubicle-slave montage ends and the romantic comedy portion of the movies begins. “Montage” would not be appropriate here as this romantic subplot seemingly dominates the movie’s run-time and never really progresses the plot in any meaningful way. There are some funny moments (see the screenshot below) but it’s staggering how generic this side story is, especially when contrasted by the futuristic trimmings surrounding it.
To Gilliam’s credit, this cinematic universe is populated by some entertaining supporting characters, but they are so disposable and forgettable that the comedic relief role is swapped out halfway through the film and it’s barely noticeable. The only character with any depth at all is Qohen and any other characters are there simply to say or do something that will move the plot toward’s it’s forgettable ending. There are funny moments, great shots and enjoyable moments, but Gilliam disappoints on the whole for me yet again. Most of the philosophical meandering that takes place here seems culled straight from that kid in the back of your Philosophy 101 course who won’t stop raising his hand. Entire subplots are left (purposely?) unresolved, rendering the eye-rolling ending even lamer. I should probably just stop paying close attention to the Gilliam films I watch, and just take in the visuals. Or just not watch his films to begin with. If you are a hardcore Gilliam completionist, you will enjoy this film, If you are anyone else, stay far away.