There’s something reassuring about Terry Gilliam, regardless of the varying nature of his films. He resides in that rarefied bubble of filmmakers interested not only in creating something wildly inventive and generally out-there, but ensuring his work is full of actual ideas. And even though this means his films can be an acquired taste just slightly off the mainstream radar, he still gets to make them at a level analogous to his vision whilst attracting a host of interesting actors. The Zero Theorem continues this trend.
The most striking element of this new Gilliam film is how it feels cut from the same cloth as his oft considered masterpiece Brazil. A similarly Orwellian fear of surveillance runs through the film as "Management" is omnipresent, continually observing and continually setting seemingly impossible deadlines for Qohen (Christoph Waltz). His job, manipulating data in an attempt to complete the zero theorem, an impossible task that will seemingly prove the fate of the universe and the meaningless of life, has an air of gamification that belies its suggested importance. This appears to be the nature of work of the future - glorified 3D block-building games completed under strict time pressures in video arcade environments. It seems wearying.
This search for meaning in life is the essence of the film. Qohen is waiting for a phone call believing it will explain the meaning of his life. An answer to the inevitable nothingness. His indefatigable faith that this will happen drives the man and pushes him into a pattern of repetition that he seems unable to escape from. He can’t see the futility of the situation and how this faith has led him down the path of a life not lived. The fact he lives monk-like and works out of a derelict church, the primary setting for the vast majority of the film, makes it akin to being continually hit in the face with religious allegory, not to mention the pointlessness of faith.
But there’s something about the set design – this location is fascinating and almost functions like a character in itself, as its owner co-habits with pigeons, uses the font as his kitchen sink and finds a camera in the place of a crucified deity’s head. Outside this run-down paradise, the futuristic world is hyper-realised neon kitsch competing with grey European city. It never really sits right but thankfully we don’t get to see too much of it.
We lose further balance when taken into a world of virtual reality. Attempts by Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley to seduce Qohen lead to a CGI beach, a place where he can seemingly find solace away from his search whilst actually “connecting” with another person, but it’s over-stylised to death and never feels anything less than awkwardly cheesy. The only saving grace of these scenes are Thierry’s alluring charms, but her character is never able to step beyond cliché. Love, as it were in the place of The Zero Theorem, is nothing but a construct, bought and fated to be virtual in its reality.
Waltz effectively shoulders the responsibility of leading the film (much as he continually keeps proving his worth as an actor). Qohen is imbued with a frenzied mania as he slowly loses control that sees him refer to himself as “we”, an alternately endearing and irritating affliction, whilst intertwining a sense of fatalism with his determination of faith. He brings a physicality to the role alongside his usual loquaciousness. This gets balanced by a comedic edge from supporting roles by Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis and Lucas Hedges - all are inevitably quirky in their own right with each adding a needed different flavour.
Whilst The Zero Theorem is intriguing and a mostly enjoyable film, it never gets remotely close to transcending most of Gilliam’s past work. It does itself no favours by leading to a flat ending that suggests both Gilliam and writer Pat Rushin had no clue where they were actually taking the story. Yet it remains one of those films that seems like a rarer and rarer experience as time passes, and that it possesses ideas and is willing to throw them about (success of them all be damned) is its real strength. It still feels like any sort of mad inventiveness from Gilliam should be celebrated in these days of creeping filmic unoriginality, regardless of whether this only moderately delivers.