The Good: Excellent direction, Good concept, Decent performances
The Bad: Convoluted (lack of) plot, Protagonist never becomes likable or interesting enough to care about, Minutia
The Basics: Terry Gilliam’s film The Zero Theorem is complicated and cluttered and fails to create a film with essential Gilliam characters.
For the past year, since I learned of the film’s existence, the movie I have wanted most to see is The Zero Theorem. Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem was completed late last year and its release has been peppered around the world and in the U.S. in film festivals. It is not getting a wide release in the U.S. and now that it is in limited release, I’ve managed to see it as part of my wife’s early birthday celebration to me. Fortunately, The Zero Theorem is better than the last film I greatly anticipated and was able to see as a birthday gift from her, The Master (reviewed here!). Even so, The Zero Theorem is not the masterwork I hoped it would be from Terry Gilliam who has created my two favorite films of all time Brazil (reviewed here!) and The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (reviewed here!).
While The Zero Theorem has been compared to Brazil by a number of reviewers, but I am not going to be one of them. Having watched The Zero Theorem twice now, I think the essential difference between the two films is in the level of character the two films portray. While both movies feature dystopian, Orwellian-style oppressive futures where people are worked to death, Brazil has interesting, likable, quirky characters who have a base of realism to them. Brazil is led by a protagonist who could be anyone living in an oppressively capitalist country, coming alive enough to reclaim his own sense of soul and self. The Zero Theorem is far more esoteric and the protagonist fails to have a connectable quality.
Qohen Leth works for Mancom, a giant company that seems to be involved with programming everything in the world of the near-future. Leth lives in an abandoned church and is petitioning Mancom to get put on disability so he can work from home, instead of being forced to go into Mancom’s offices each day and work on his own next to others working alone. Qohen has been waiting his entire life for a specific telephone call, so working from home is ideal for him and he is disappointed when the company’s doctors will not approve his request. Leth’s supervisor, Joby, invites him to a party where Qohen is able to meet with the mysterious head of Mancom, Management. Management makes an exception to the company’s doctors’ recommendation and sends Qohen home the next day, with the intent that he will work on their Zero Theorem project. In his house, Qohen starts working on plugging random figures into an insanely complex creation with the intent of getting zero in the equation to reach 100%.
Monitored by Management, Leth’s efforts to get zero to 100% show almost no progress. To try to shake things up, Management hires Bainsley, a virtual-reality prostitute (she strips online and only allows “clients” to have contact with her through virtual-reality bodysuits so she does not actually have sex with them) to try to make a connection with Leth. After Leth’s frustration with the project reaches a new high and he crushes his equipment, Management’s son, Bob, comes to Leth’s house to repair the equipment. Bob’s presence aids Leth in both the work on the Zero Theorem and in his personal life. Exposing Management’s plan as a form of control over Leth and revealing everyone under the influence of Management to be tools of Management’s machinations, Bob draws Leth away from his virtual world and back into the real world.
Much of The Zero Theorem is devoted to creating mood and embellishing the setting of Terry Gilliam’s near-future. Unfortunately for viewers, the hyperbolic setting of The Zero Theorem is chaotic to the point of being entirely overbearing. Qohen Leth’s world is not supposed to be an inviting vision of the future, but we get that almost immediately in The Zero Theorem. After leaving his burnt-out, graffiti-covered church home, Qohen Leth steps out into a world where everyone is self-absorbed and plugged into personal electronic devices. To combat that, the city is packed with advertisements that chase down citizens as they try to move around. The setting is big, obvious, oppressive . . . and Gilliam beats the viewer to death with it. Unfortunately, Gilliam seems to be under the impression that his viewers are not particularly attentive: the first time Leth is out in the city, one of the news crawls on the wall has a story of a six inch gap in the train tracks being filled with ice cream; after months of working from home, Leth goes back out and the news feed has the same story!
The attention to setting and creating a visually-impressive film preoccupies Gilliam past the point of reason or sensibility in The Zero Theorem. I “get” what Qohen Leth is working on and how he is going his work. Unlike Pi (reviewed here!) where the film is so esoteric that only a mathematician is able to understand even a fraction of what is going on with the work being pursued, Gilliam does not get obsessed with the minutiae in The Zero Theorem. But in not presenting the actual work on the Zero Theorem in a rational way on Management’s work, Gilliam creates a concept that only works as a cinematic visual effect. Qohen Leth uses an interface that is very much like a video game; his work on the Zero Theorem is presented much like a three-dimensional game of Tetris. Leth shoots blocks that represent mathematical elements to create factor cubes and then he plugs those cubes into the immense equation that represents the larger Zero Theorem. Sometimes, that moves the equation forward, other times it causes the collapse of previously-established structures in the equation. This is an intriguing visual representation of pursuing a mathematical proof; the new information disproves a previously-assumed component of the equation. We get it.
The problem with The Zero Theorem is that Qohen Leth does not seem to have any form of intellectual or creative drive to actually work on the equation. Leth seems to randomly create the blocks and plugs them into the equation with equal randomness. To understand the problem, look at this review. Seriously, the form mirrors the evaluation; trying to describe the setting takes up so much space, but finding space to discuss how Qohen Leth interacts with it is pretty much a non-starter. Qohen Leth is like a random element in The Zero Theorem; he is a product of the setting, but does not actually do much of anything in that setting. Leth’s work is random and nonsensical in a world where technology is overbearing. Given the randomness of the interface for the work that Leth is working on, it seems like a computer program would actually be able to make sense of the work faster and better than any person (i.e. the only way the computer program could work, rationally, is by being programmed with elements and any possible combination of those elements that would be combined to form the factors for the larger equation and then plugged into the equation could be formed faster and in infinite combinations by the computer once the smallest building blocks were entered into the interface).
So, complex and pointless, but visually impressive; that’s the bulk of The Zero Theorem. What saves The Zero Theorem, even if it took me multiple viewings of the film to get there, is the acting and the (eventual) character development. Qohen Leth is pushed into the world, out of his simple, focused, world in front of the computer monitor. He interacts virtually and in the real world with Bainsley and Bob and that does make Leth evolve. He stops using the first person plural and he actually becomes invested in trying to solve the Zero Theorem. Leth accepts that he has been a tool, but he seems to genuinely want to get zero closer to 100% (even if the methods used are somewhat nonsensical).
Outside his role in The Green Hornet (reviewed here!), I had never seen Christoph Waltz in anything. In The Zero Theorem, he plays an uptight, reclusive, and entirely off-putting computer programmer and he does it exceptionally well. Waltz is difficult to watch as Qohen Leth, but part of that is because Waltz is able to so completely and realistically bury his humanity to make the character come alive. As Leth develops, Waltz plays off Lucas Hedges’s Bob brilliantly. Hedges brings youth and exuberance to the role of Bob and the more he and Waltz interact, the more Waltz infuses Leth with subtle eye movements and facial expressions that make Leth more relatable and human. Waltz slowly infuses Leth with soul and that makes for a memorable and complex performance.
Similarly, Melanie Thierry plays Bainsley as a seemingly generic sex object, but is able to completely sell the moment Bainsley develops more. Thierry and Lucas Hedges have great on-screen chemistry with Waltz. Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon have wonderful supporting roles in The Zero Theorem as the computer-generated therapist and Management, respectively. Swinton’s part is reminiscent of Ricardo Montalban’s portrayal of Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (reviewed here!); the way Swinton interacts with Waltz is so convincing one never thinks about how Swinton and Waltz are never in the same room together.
The Zero Theorem asks viewers to invest a lot to get to a point that is not as satisfying as a lobotomized rebel, but the journey is clever-enough to be watchable. Terry Gilliam created a mess with The Zero Theorem, but he populated it with exceptional performers playing at the top of their game and a visual sensibility that is incredible, if overwhelming and it’s still better than Tideland (reviewed here!)!
For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
Hit By Lightning
Listen Up Philip
The Best Of Me
The Maze Runner
This Is Where I Leave You
Guardians Of The Galaxy
Life Of Crime
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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