It would feel much better to give a structured, analytical review to Terry Gilliam’s newest film, dystopian sci-fi parable The Zero Theorem. But whatever complexity there was in its original conception gets lost under the weight of whimsy and weird angles in a retread of a genre that Gilliam himself helped revolutionize.
The Zero Theorem stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a programmer who is as talented at his work as he is alienated from his surroundings. For his entire life, Qohen has been waiting for a mysterious phone call of great philosophical significance. His boss, Management (Matt Damon), is a distant yet seemingly omniscient bureaucrat who allows Qohen to work from home with the assistance of his computer whiz son. Along the way, Qohen begins to have an online relationship in virtual reality that allow him to escape from his nightmares, which usually revolve around approaching a black hole.
If reading that summary felt confusing and exhausting, then it’s done a good job of encapsulating the experience of watching this film. Dutch angles and constant motion overstimulate scenes that ought to have a visual center. Too often, exposition takes the form of fast-paced whizzing about. Outrageous characters and costumes — one of Gilliam’s specialties — feel far too artificial to succeed as grotesque satire.
What holds The Zero Theorem back most of all, however, is precisely what made some of Gilliam’s most standout films shine; when he directs on pure instinct, he is able to cut to the emotional core of situations that might appear absurd on the surface yet peel back to reveal some element of emotional insight. In Brazil, his most celebrated work, Gilliam’s Caligari-esque perspective on what such a corporatist dystopia would feel like carries you through the film when the narrative does not. Whatever your opinion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a film, it certainly tapped into Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary skills of free association with striking visual metaphors and relatable depictions of hallucination.
It’s when Gilliam deals with a story that requires any sort of literal exposition and analysis that his instincts fail and his energy begins to feel manic rather than inspired. The Zero Theorem desperately wants to have something to say, but the mediation on nothingness it promises would have been more interesting than the exercise in repetition it delivers.
THE ZERO THEOREM | RATED R | IN SELECT THEATERS NOW, COMING TO BRATTLE 10.10-10.13
BONUS FEATURES: STREAMS
BRAZIL (iTunes, Amazon)
Terry Gilliam has described his newest film, The Zero Theorem, as the third installment of his dystopian satire trilogy. The first film, Brazil, follows Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a bureaucrat with a penchant for romanticism and daydreaming. He is both a willing cog in the totalitarian government and adventurer at heart who finds himself torn between the safety of his soul-sucking world and the honesty of rebellion. Funny, daring, and unpredictable, Brazil is often seen as one of the great dystopian works of fiction, in the tradition of Heinlein and Orwell.
12 MONKEYS (iTunes, Amazon)
The second installment is time travel mystery 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis as James Cole, a convicted criminal who is sent from the future to investigate the origins of a synthetic virus that has driven all survivors underground. Exactly what happens along the way is better experienced than described, but the dirty, rudimentary take on time travel is unique. The film shows us the disheartening psychological toll of knowing about a tragedy in advance but being powerless to prevent it.