I am a longtime fan of Terry Gilliam. Brazil and Time Bandits are great movies, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is my favorite film of all time, hands down. That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that his recent work can be uneven (if you saw The Brothers Grimm you’ve probably already forgotten it… and now I’ve reminded you… sorry), so it was with both hope and trepidation that I went into Gilliam’s latest film, The Zero Theorem. The movie showcases the Monty Python alum’s best and worst habits as a filmmaker, but on the whole it comes out ahead.
In many ways, Zero Theorem is a close cousin to Brazil; both feature nebbishy loners seeking meaning in a dysfunctional nearfuture society. Of the two, Theorem conjures a somewhat more fleshed out setting; Brazil, with its soulcrushing bureaucracy at every turn, felt like a bit of a onenotedystopia, more a symbol than a believable world. By contrast, the society depicted in this new film is not so much evil as aggressively superficial, awash in pushy advertisements, with glowing tablets in the hand of every garishly dressed citizen. The technology of this glittering mediacracy is bolted to the surfaces of stately but dilapidated stone buildings a shiny new world build carelessly atop the old one. The satire is overt, but the setting still feels plausible.
The unfortunate protagonist here is Christof Waltz’s character Qohen (pronounced “Cohen” or “Koan”, the latter of which is apropos given the film’s preoccupation with unanswerable questions). Qohen is clearly unwell; he is deeply antisocial, haunted by visions of black holes, and spends his days obsessively waiting for a mystical phone call that he believes will give his life meaning. He is enlisted by his allpowerful corporate employer to work on a special project: proving the eponymous Zero Theorem, in which 0=100%. What exactly this means remains nebulous; perhaps he is trying to prove that life has meaning, perhaps that it is meaningless. In any case, the theorem pushes Qohen’s already fragile psyche over the edge and into, well, who can say.
To a large extent this is a onecharacter movie. We get deep under Qohen’s skin, but other people move into and out of his selfimposed bubble without much consequence*. The notable exception is Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a hightech call girl who goes out of her way to save and/or sabotage Qohen’s soul. Thierry gets to chew some major scenery here and I really wanted her character to move beyond the stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl role that the script hands her… and she sort of does, but only sort of. Moving on.
If Gilliam has a flaw, it’s that he can be rather hamfisted when it comes to his movies’ themes, which usually boil down to some sort of ideological conflict: dreams vs. bureaucracy in Brazil, imagination vs. rationality in Baron Munchhausen, childlike wonder vs. brutal historical reality in Time Bandits, etc. To a certain extent, Theorem falls into the same trap, with most of the film dwelling on a fairly obvious conflict between nihilism and the search for meaning. To the movie’s credit, it ultimately rejects both of these options in favor of… something else. I don’t want to get spoilery so I won’t say more about the ending, but I invite discussion in the comments for anyone else who’s seen it.
On the whole, The Zero Theorem is not on par with Gilliam’s best work, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of anything he’s done in recent years. I heartily recommend it to Gilliam fans and moviegoers who enjoy a good mindtrip. Other viewers are left to their own judgment.
* I am honorbound to mention that the movie also includes one of my favorite actresses, Tilda Swinton, as a psychologist AI who engages in an inexplicable rap breakdown that might just be worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Robin Latkovich lives in Cleveland and deals with humans on a semi-professional level. He thinks most of them are OK, given what they have to work with.