Every time I watch a Terry Gilliam movie for the first time, I'm always a little overwhelmed by just how many new things I'm seeing. Even in a lesser effort like The Brothers Grimm, there are still those bewildering scenes that make me wonder if I actually saw what I thought I saw. Technically, there are a lot of new things to be seen in The Zero Theorem - I certainly can't think of another movie in which a billboard warmly invited people to consider joining The Church of Batman the Redeemer - but most of it feels strangely familiar this time around. Maybe I've just seen too many Gilliam movies. Maybe too many other filmmakers have drawn from his work. Or maybe he's actually repeating himself to a greater degree than ever before.
Our story takes place at some point in the near future. Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds) is a computer programmer tasked with “crunching entities” for a major corporation. Qohen does not care for his workplace environment. It's crowded, stressful and full of distractions. He'd much rather be working at home – partially because he can be more efficient there, but mostly because he's eagerly awaiting a mysterious phone call of sorts which he is unable to receive at work. One day, “Management” (a white-haired Matt Damon, looking vaguely like Eric Idle's universe-wandering crooner in “Monty Python's The Meaning of Life”) grants Qohen's request. Qohen will be permitted to work at home, as long as he agrees to work on solving the zero theorem – a mathematical equation designed to prove that life is ultimately meaningless. Many have worked on this theorem before, and many have cracked in the process, but Qohen might just have what it takes to complete the project.
Waltz's performance is unlike anything else I've seen from the actor. So confident and charismatic in most of his recent roles, he now essays a man who makes most Woody Allen characters seem supremely self-assured. The bald, eyebrow-less Qohen is a strange, touchy bundle of nerves – perpetually uncomfortable, avoiding human contact (especially physical contact) like the plague and always referring to himself in the plural (“We find this an unnecessary ritual,” he complains to supervisor/chum David Thewlis, Naked). Once he begins working on the zero theorem, things get worse – he finds himself fighting off extreme bouts of madness and despair on a daily basis.
Thankfully, Qohen begins to find some solace in the company of a bright, cheerful young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry, Babylon A.D.), who runs her own virtual reality porn site (an elaborate full body suit is required to experience what the site has to offer) and finds herself intrigued by Qohen's assorted tics. Qohen resists her friendly gestures at first, but eventually finds himself slipping into something of a genuine relationship. He also receives some helpful technical support from Bob (Lucas Hedges, Moonrise Kingdom), a 15-year-old whiz kid and one of Management's rising stars. It's likely that Bob is a corporate spy of some sort, but Qohen is too exhausted to care about Management's less-than-subtle Orwellian tactics (his initial workplace is littered with signs reading “management is always watching”). He just wants to complete his task and get his phone call.
It won't take long before Qohen's story will start to feel awfully familiar to Gilliam fans. The Zero Theorem is very much a reworking of Gilliam's Brazil - still the director's masterpiece. The themes are near-identical, the cluttered, bureaucracy-driven version of the future is awfully similar (if occasionally a bit closer to Huxley than Orwell this time around), Qohen is an obvious Sam Lowry stand-in, Thewlis is a fusion of the Michael Palin/Ian Holm characters, Thierry fills the Kim Griest role and the ending... well, the ending feels suspiciously familiar, too. There's nothing wrong with a director returning to the ideas which fascinate him – many great directors have built long, rich careers on a small handful of recurring themes – but one can't help but feel that Gilliam already said most of this more effectively thirty years ago.
One gets the sense that Gilliam wanted to fine-tune his old ideas for a 21st century audience, but his presentation of those ideas is a bit clunkier than before. His dystopian sight gags in Brazil were often darkly hilarious; here they tend to be merely obvious – a statue of Christ with the head replaced by a surveillance camera, a scene in which someone eagerly uses their cell phone to film a person choking to death, shots of people listening to their own music through headphones while other music is blasting over a speaker system, etc. Things start to gain a bit of steam once Qohen literally begins searching for the meaning of life, but Gilliam's answers to his big questions are fuzzier than usual – a surprise coming from the man who once gave us very blunt conversations with both God and The Devil (in Time Bandits, of all things).
The film is shorter than usual for Gilliam (106 minutes), and one can't help but wonder if it was cut down a bit for distribution purposes. Thierry's final scene contains some major declarations that the film never finds a way to justify – an extra scene or two detailing the build-up to those declarations might have made them a bit more believable. It's also the rare Gilliam film which feels a little constrained by its budget. I would have liked to see more of the world surrounding Qohen's home (he's living in a run-down church sanctuary – another fairly on-the-nose touch), but our visits there are limited due to their obvious costliness. Perhaps that explains why the SFX-heavy climax feels a bit rushed in contrast to the expertly-paced emotional roller coaster offered by the final act of Brazil. Gilliam also leans heavily on a lounge-y cover version of Radiohead's “Creep,” which might have been a bit more effective if that song hadn't already been used for similar purposes (underlining themes of isolation) in so many other corners of pop culture.
And yet... I can't quite dismiss the movie. We've seen it all before, but sometimes these variations generate their own sort of resonance. Waltz finds so many amusing/tragic notes in his performance; clinging to the notion that he'll eventually find answers to life's problems as long as he keeps working hard and doing his job. Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer) pops up on multiple occasions as a therapist conducting sessions with Qohen via video chat, and turns in yet another strangely distinctive character. Middling sight gags aside, the film's production design is a marvel to behold – Gilliam stuffs the frame with images that enhance his characters and his ideas (the condition and contents of Qohen's home say so much about his priorities). At various points, the film captures both the pain of loneliness and the pleasure of being alone. I keep running that last scene through my mind, and the exquisite blend of warmth, sadness and strange melancholy it generates. This is an ambitious, involving, imaginative film, but it's also a faint echo of the director's greatest work.
The Zero Theorem
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 106 minutes
Release Year: 2014