The Zero Theorem Review

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Surreal sci-fi mystery? It must be Terry Gilliam again...

by Casimir Harlow Mar 19, 2014 at 7:08 PM

  • Movies review


    The Zero Theorem Review

    Cynical existentialist sci-fi as only Gilliam can deliver.

    From Brazil to Twelve Monkeys, despite the stumbling blocks along the way, the cinema of visionary auteur Terry Gilliam has been colourful and surreal in the extreme, but also engaging and compelling in equal measure. His latest, The Zero Theorem, is ignited by the same spark that drove the paranoid potency of Brazil, and steeped in the same seedy Orwellian sci-fi future that twisted both that and Twelve Monkeys around in our minds, but delivered with slightly fewer frills; the budgetary restrictions of the near-as Hollywood outcast perhaps more evident than ever before.
    Following the endeavours of beleaguered future worker bee, Qohen Leth is a quiet, reserved analyst, feverishly working at his latest task and put upon by the haranguing holographic 'management' who wants him to prove one simple thing: that life has no meaning. Using scientific theories and positing the universe as a black hole singularity, Qohen works diligently on the so-called Zero Theorem, despite the fact that his heart may not be in it, but when he gets paid a visit from a beautiful young woman he finds himself drawn even further away from the cause.

    For Terry Gilliam, the answer to life is not a hilariously nonsensical 42, it's a cynically satirical Zero.

    The Zero Theorem
    There's a reason why Brazil and Twelve Monkeys both get mentioned so frequently in the same breath as Gilliam's latest: he has stated that The Zero Theorem represents the final chapter in his "Orwellian triptych", a trilogy of dystopian satires which all carry similar visions of the future and similar themes about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. But it takes a great deal more than just self-labelling to earn a right to stand alongside those earlier classics, and, whilst The Zero Theorem undoubtedly delivers to Gilliam enthusiasts, it seems unable to quite deliver the same slightly broader appeal that Brazil - and certainly 'Monkeys - carried.

    This is not a director-centric Hollywood - that time has long passed - but Gilliam still finds a way to deliver the goods.

    His field of vision is still broad, and his wild existentialism wielded with skill and dexterity, but this is still a slightly narrower focus, no doubt made further claustrophobic by a short production schedule and limited budget. Gilliam himself compares the current state of the movie industry to the increasing gap in society: with the affluent blockbusters on one side and the struggling indie flicks on the other. Still, he works wonders with what he's got, transforming the Bucharest shooting locations into a suitably Blade Runner-esque neo-neon-steampunk future vision infected by so many gaudy future-billboards spewing ad campaigns that Verhoeven would be positively grinning at the environment. Gilliam's visions may be streaked with darker veins of unending corporate corruption and little-man cynicism, but his eye for biting satire is still as good as it's ever been.

    The Zero Theorem
    The cast too remind us of how many tries it takes to get a Gilliam project off the ground, with the original Billy Bob Thornton - Jessica Biel - Al Pacino trio being entirely reworked in favour of Christopher Waltz, Melanie Thierry and Matt Damon (with typically Gilliam bit parts for both Tilda Swinton and the incessantly quirky David Thewlis). Whilst the studios might have invested more in the other names, audiences have probably been given the better deal, as Christopher Waltz brings home yet another scene-stealing performance.

    Waltz defined 'Basterds and stole Django's limelight, and he doesn't disappoint here, sporting an alien-like hair-less visage, and finding in his eccentric genius protagonist the right note of conflicted heart and soul to draw us into his plight. Thierry too is stunning, a striking French actress who still hasn't quite found the right avenue by which to break into Hollywood - and who may find that this isn't it either - but who nevertheless delivers the goods with the utmost conviction, bringing us an almost impossibly unreal pixie who has more than enough strength of will to distract Qohen as much with her mind as with her majesty.

    Whilst everybody else might want to find a better jumping-off point into the weird, wonderful world of Terry Gilliam, his dedicated fans will lap this up.

    Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect - or ask for - a Gilliam film which will appeal to more than just a Gilliam audience, but it isn't an unprecedented notion, and, whilst it is neither lacking in ambition or vision; in talent or performance, The Zero Theorem isn't quite cut from the same cloth as its siblings. Maybe that's the point though - Hollywood and the film industry have changed so much, whilst he hasn't wanted to, that Gilliam has had to change too. So perhaps, as a post-2010 bookend to his dystopian satire trilogy, we couldn't have expected anything better, and should probably just be grateful that he can still make movies like this.

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