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16 Sep 2014

Meandering Mush: Terry Gilliam's Futuristic Big-Brother Flick 'The Zero Theorem' Is a Near-Miss

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Christoph Waltz in The Zero Theorem, opening at the Cinemas Palme d'Or on Friday, Sept. 19. Christoph Waltz in The Zero Theorem, opening at the Cinemas Palme d'Or on Friday, Sept. 19.

In the latest from director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker “crunching entities” on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing—and will return to nothing.

I won’t say that Gilliam’s movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it becomes nonsensical, meandering mush after a promising, eye-catching beginning.

The movie has all of the watermarks of classic Gilliam films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The future is a claustrophobic place in which fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of Brazil. There are also hoses and wires—lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There’s also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console and manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), that “we,” meaning he, is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned-out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen’s wish is granted, and he’s allowed to work at home on the company’s Zero Theorem project—a project that has burned out many programmers before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he’s visited by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want—and make out, too.

The film’s settings—from the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, to the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow people and converse with them as they walk by—give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He’s still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious that some of his visions are a few special-effects dollars short. (Gilliam doesn’t command the budgets he once did.)

What he doesn’t have is a script that amounts to much. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin (his first feature, according to IMDb), has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end—and this is a movie in which the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of Brazil’s dark ending—Gilliam’s original cut, that is, and not that “Happily Ever After” mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly. It’s a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments; his repairman “field trip” to Qohen’s home is reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Yes, The Zero Theorem is one of those films in which a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It’s Gilliam’s best film since Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, although that’s not saying much, seeing as the interim has included stuff like the awful Tideland and mediocre The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is trying to mount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote yet again, and I’m hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject—something he is so passionate about—will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He’s due for another one, and I think he’s got it in him.

The Zero Theorem represents a great director starting to warm up again. It’s a miss, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Zero Theorem is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

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