Zero Theorem, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/18/14 19:27:02

"Enough Is Never Enough"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Although Terry Gilliam is still one of the most divisive filmmakers working today--depending on who you talk to, he is either a visionary genius of a singularly uncompromising nature or a muddled storyteller who jam-packs his films with elaborate visual flourishes to compensate for his inability to present a coherent narrative--it is generally accepted that the high-water mark of his career to date was "Brazil," his mind-blowing 1985 epic of an ordinary man trying to find love, freedom and meaning to his existence in a grimly dystopian near-future in which the only true escape is into his imagination that would go on to become a cult favorite and an influence on any number of filmmakers over the years. As it turns out, Gilliam himself seems to have been one of those influenced by it because his latest effort, "The Zero Theorem," is another sci-fi freakout that owes more than a slight debt to the earlier film. While the end result may lack the bold originality of the director's best work, there is still much to be astonished by here as Gilliam demonstrates once again that even a second-tier effort of his features more creativity, style, ambition and energy than the top-shelf works of most other filmmakers that you or I could name.

Set in a not-too-distant future in which corporations appear to have officially taken over as the rulers of society--advertising is everywhere and the closest thing to religion is a billboard advising people to worship Batman the Redeemer--the film stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a brilliant computer analyst who crunches entities for the sprawling Mancom corporation ("Making Sense of the Good Things in Life"), which houses them in an enormous system known as the Neural Net Mancive. Qohen's big dream is to be allowed to work from the abandoned church that he calls home--partly because he is already somewhat reclusive by nature (his belief that he is his own best company is underlined by his insistence on referring to himself the plural tense) and because he is expecting a telephone call that he believes will reveal the meaning of life to him, a call that he accidentally hung up on before and which he has now based his entire existence around.

While his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) doesn't want his best cruncher to go, Qohen finally gets to meet with management--made easier in this case since the man in charge is actually named Management (Matt Damon)--and is eventually allowed to work from home. In exchange, he is given a special assignment--he is to analyze all the information in the Neural Net and attempt to prove a mysterious mathematical formula known as the Zero Theorem, an equation so difficult that all those before who have attempted to solve it have either burned out or gone completely mad. Months pass and Qohen grows increasingly agitated by his inability to crack the theorem, his existential angst, largely manifesting itself in nightmares involving black holes, continues to plague him and the intrusions by his AI psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton, who appears to have dropped in straight from the "Snowpiercer"" set) offer little in the way of help or relief.

It all becomes too much for Qohen and one day, he busts up his computer out of pure frustration. This leads to perhaps the last thing that he could possibly want--visitors who arrive to lend a hand. One is Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a beautiful oddball who Qohen met at a party and who not only encourages him to continue with his work but provides him with a special AI suit so that they can meet up in the virtual world for more romantic encounters. Somewhat less appealing is Bob (Lucas Hedges), the son of Management and a computer prodigy who repairs Qohen's equipment, informs him that Mancom is spying on him around the clock and that even Bainsley may be in with them. At the same time, he assures Qohen that if he gets back to work on the theorem, his long-awaited phone call will be forthcoming. Finally, Qohen begins to make significant breakthroughs regarding both the theorem and his personal life until a series of shocking discoveries about the true nature of both the Zero Theorem and Bainsley threaten his very existence.

As someone who believes Terry Gilliam to be one of the most innovative directors working today--I even throughly admire "Tideland," the ultra-grim fairy tale that even his most devout partisans have trouble embracing--I look at every new offering of his with a genuine sense of anticipation that I am going to see something new and unusual. Even when he is working with material generated by others that was not necessarily intended for him (as was the case with such instant classics as "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"), he has demonstrated an unfailing ability to apply his sensibilities to the screenplay at hand in ways that make the resulting film unmistakably his own.

With "The Zero Theorem," on the other hand, he is working from a screenplay by Pat Rushin that appears to have been constructed with him in mind from the outset--the parallels between this film and "Brazil" alone are too numerous to recount here--and for the first time that I can recall, the result is a Terry Gilliam film that has a wiff of the familiar to it and that is a bit disconcerting. Additionally, while Gilliam's films have never been hailed for their narrative cohesiveness (unfairly, I believe), they nevertheless maintain a certain logical consistency throughout that Rushin's screenplay never quite achieves--too many key story points are left up in the air, especially towards the end, and while it makes a little more sense with repeated viewings, some viewers may be too baffled with it the first time around to give it another chance.

And yet, while "The Zero Theorem" may ultimately lack the bracing originality of Gilliam's finest work, there is still much to savor here. His instantly recognizable visual style is as sharp as ever and there is hardly a scene on display that fails to provide some kind of wonderment for the eyes--even the shots that otherwise betray the film's otherwise low budget have a certain grandeur to them--and while I cannot quite begin to explain what happens in the final minutes, the way that he presents them is still pretty spellbinding. Although the narrative may not quite add up to a cohesive whole, there are a lot of strong individual scenes scattered throughout--I especially enjoyed a slyly amusing party sequence early on in which all of the attendees are too busy listening to their own music on their phones and digital players to hear the party music or to even interact with one another.

Gilliam also tends to be underrated as a director of actors by many critics and he once again shows off his considerable skills in that area here with the performance that he gets from Christoph Waltz, easily the best work that he has done in a non-Tarantino film that I can recall seeing. He skillfully manages to tamp down his considerable charisma in the early going to play an antisocial misfit to such a degree that when he allows a certain degree of humanity to seep in as the story progresses, the impact can really be felt. All the supporting performances are strong as well, with the exception of Melanie Thierry, who has acquitted herself well in the past but is hampered with a role that asks little more of her than to look beautiful and not interfere too much with the proceedings. There is also a brief cameo early on from a well-known Gilliam veteran that was presumably included to score a quick laugh but which now, due to circumstances, may inspire a tear or two.

Most films today, even some of the good ones, are produced with the kind of precision usually found in a math class--every single element adds up correctly in the end and everything is presented in a neat and efficient manner but the end results are always the same. Terry Gilliam, on the other hand, is the kind of crackpot genius who goes way off on his own peculiar tangents and when he turns in his results, they are often messy (this is a guy who definitely likes to show all of his work), things rarely add up in a logical manner but when he is firing on all cylinders, he is more than capable of giving us authentic breakthroughs. "The Zero Theorem" may not be a truly great Terry Gilliam project but that does not make it unworthy in any sense of the word. Whatever its faults, this is a film by a real filmmaker that stands out in stark contrast to the majority of filmed deals on display in the multiplexes these days and for that alone, "The Zero Theorem" is worth a look or two.

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