by Kathie Smith
Terry Gilliam is one of the most wildly creative minds working in feature filmmaking today. With an irrepressible imagination, a perverse sense of detail, and a very wry view of absurdity, Gilliam’s impact on the acceptable parameters of mainstream films—from Monty Python to 12 Monkeys, Brazil to the Fisher King—is hard to measure. (Pick a person at random, and they will likely provide their adoration if not quotes for at least one Gilliam movie.) Although his recent work has receded from mass consumption (a depreciation that understandably started with 2005’s miscalibrated The Brothers Grimm), this has not kept him from chasing his ambitions down a deliriously fascinating rabbit hole of alternative realities with the likes of Tideland and the largely undervalued The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The Zero Theorem, Gilliam’s twelfth feature film, channels the same kind of raw energy for a grand dystopian spectacle, but in a way that feels unusually flippant and callous—traits uncommon even in Gilliam’s most pessimistic films.
The Film Society of Minneapolis/St Paul
Director: Terry Giliam
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck
Writer: Pat Rushin
Cinematographer: Nicola Pecorini
Editor: Mick Audsley
Music: George Fenton
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw,
Premiere: September 2, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 19, 2014
US Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Set in the not too distant future, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is an OCD computer genius who lives in a dilapidated church and “crunches entities” by day in a cubicle that looks more like an giant gaming console. Qohen suffers from a type of existential paranoid delusion that life itself will get the best of him, but he fully expects to be saved from his demise by an elusive phone call that will literally tell him what to do. This, of course, causes him even more anxiety that he will not be home when the call arrives. Always referring to himself in the first person plural, he feigns illness in a ploy to work at home: “We are dying.” to which the doctors respond, “Dying people are rarely so productive.” Qohen’s only choice is to attempt a verboten meeting with Management (with a capital “M” because it actually seems to be his name).
Seeing Qohen’s desperation as something to exploit, Management (played by an austere bleach-blond Matt Damon) authorizes Qohen to work at home on a special project called the Zero Theorem. The Sisyphean task (and one that programmers will probably appreciate) requires that Qohen find the equation where 0 equals 100%, also essentially proving the opposite, that everything equals nothing. The puzzle is visual represented on screen as a massive 3D Tetris labyrinth, requiring the right cube or calculation be put in the right place without having a portion of the structure collapse. Relegated to home where he can work on the project 24/7, often without much sleep, Qohen has finally found an entity he can’t crunch.
The unspooling of Qohen’s world is nothing short of an eye-popping showroom for Gilliam’s aesthetic. Qohen’s home is a dark baroque dungeon covered with dust and filled with rats, yet the street is a Technicolor nightmare—a cacophony of advertisements on jumbotrons and electronic signboards that mask the aging patina of the city. The movie segues into a hilarious ad for Qohen’s employer Mancom—“making sense of the good things in life”—and takes us into offices that resemble some combination of a casino and a playful, cutting-edge tech company. (Slogans line the walls, like “Don’t Ask, Mulitask!”) Qohen’s desk requires him to pedal as he maneuvers a large Playstation-like controller and crunches data that is packaged into test tubes. At a party Qohen reluctantly attends to meet Management, crowds of people dance while staring at their tablets or phones. Every setting strikes very close to home for urbanites everywhere.
Qohen’s human interaction, by choice, is kept to a minimum, but he is pestered by Dr. Shrink-ROM (Tilda Swinton), an online therapist issued by Mancom; Bob (Lucas Hedges), a young, obnoxious computer geek; and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a beautiful woman who gives Qohen a respite from his constant disquiet. Qohen believes that Bainsley is a happenstance acquaintance and finds himself distracted not only from the Zero Theorem but also from his all-important phone call. He partakes in a modern version of cybersex with her, otherwise known as “Tantric Bio-Telamatic Interfacing,” that requires he wear a form-fitting red unisuit (hilariously reminding me of Buster Keaton in his Go West devil costume). Their virtual reality amounts to no more that relaxing on a perfect isolated beach, but the experience nonetheless opens a door to a human connection, no matter how artificial, that has been missing in Cohen’s life.
In an alternate Gilliam universe, Bainsley would be Qohen’s phone call. If The Zero Theorem is about anything at all, it’s about false hope. Gilliam issues a firm indictment against the modern world and our inability to unplug with little hope. Qohen waits for a phone call that will “provide a purpose that we have long lived without” and he works for a company that wishes to prove that everything is nothing. Qohen is well aware of his dilemma, fostered in beautifully visualized dreams of his unprotected naked body floating into a black hole, but he is powerless to the social constructs that keep him and his life without meaning. In some respects, Gilliam seems to be in the same place and unable to do much of anything for Qohen except throw up his hands in defeat. By denying Qohen any sincerity in his environment, Gilliam’s sardonic depiction of the world ends up feeling like an irreverent farce (a palatially realized one, but a farce nevertheless).
Finally released in the US after a pregnant pause that allowed the rest of the world to dip their toes in the water first, The Zero Theorem is poised to both enrapture and disappoint fans that have waited so long. Gilliam still has his finger on the pulse, providing a subtle commentary on humanity and its governing powers that most filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but he nonetheless keeps his emotions at arm length making Zero Theorem feel detached from a certain amount of sympathy it wishes to embrace. The magic of Brazil (which shares a kinship in the sci-fi stratagems of The Zero Theorem) can be found in the balance between the compassionate texture of its characters and the misanthropic absurdity of its milieu. Both Harry Tuttle and Sam Lowry are men under the thumb of bureaucracy but are brought to life by their major and minor retaliations. Qohen, who we need to feel represents us in some way, struggles for the sake of struggling, and perhaps that is Gilliam’s disheartening condemnation: struggle all you want because it’s all for nothing. And even though Karen Souza’s swing cover of Radiohead’s Creep that closes the film makes you want to feel like everything is okay, it most certainly is not.