The master of the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam hasn’t been the most consistent director of recent years. After onset problems with his Don Quixote film and the documentary that came from it, his unique brand of film-making has proved difficult with regard raising any kind of production funds. However with a great cast lined up this didn’t prove as difficult to create The Zero Theorem a film that he himself describes as the third part of a satirical dystopian trilogy that started with Brazil and continued with 12 Monkeys.
Set in an indeterminate future Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is an employee for a huge corporation in a dystopian future, a company that XXX owned by Management (Matt Damon), who tasks him with solving the Zero Theorem, itself part of Big Crunch theory. He shuns human interaction and prefers to stay in his converted Church home awaiting a mysterious phone call that will change his life. He slowly finds himself drawn into the personal lives of his colleague Joby (David Thewlis), the boss’ son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and a mysterious woman called Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). As he draws closer to completing his goal, he begins to realise that reality and fiction become increasingly intertwined.
The Zero Theorem couldn’t be a more recognisable Gilliam film if it tried. Everything from the fantastical world he has created, with beeping and squelching buttons and knobs to the extravagant costume design and mind-bending ideas and performances feels like something created from the mad genius behind Brazil, Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchousen.
Directed with a surreal confidence the film never allows itself to become predictable, even if it does twist itself into knots with its own creation and inventiveness. Like all great science fiction fiction, The Zero Theorem is really about modern ideas transplanted into a fictional future. In this case there are comments on the growing use of technology and the creation of jobs with limited purpose that allow an increasingly archaic mode of society to continue to function. Everyone’s jobs appear to be fairly meaningless, with people ˜plugging in’ and clocking their time solving mathematical equations. Meanwhile recreational pursuits are found in a virtual world and even psychiatry is performed by advanced artificial intelligence (Tilda Swinton).
The question, similar to Spike Jonze’s Her, relates to the importance if any, or real human interaction or whether our increasingly online life is a valid substitute. The film sometimes gets confused in the story it is trying to tell and various portions feel extraneous and confusing, which is a problem, but when it focuses itself The Zero Theorem is a staggering work of art.
The film relies upon the surreal performances to engage the audience and in Christoph Waltz and Melanie Thierry, it has a strange and wonderful central relationship. He is an odd outsider, walking the thin line between aloof and sympathetic. But much has already been made of Waltz’s talents, and it is actually the films supporting players of Thierry and Hedges who stand out. Thierry is untrustworthy but fascinating and strangely warm to be in the company with. Meanwhile newcomer Hedges brings every bit of charm and charisma as any of the more established performers and is clearly has a career to watch going forward.
You may not understand all the ideas within the film or even the narrative structure, but the performances and overall atmosphere are second-to-none. The Zero Theorem proves, as if there was any doubt, that Terry Gilliam truly is the insane genius film-maker that the world needs. Baffling, bonkers and oddly enjoyable it’s another cult classic in the making from the master of madness.