The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam
There are many aspects of today's cinematic landscape that make me wonder if we're not already living in some sort of hyper-technological dystopia. How, for example, is it possible that I should only hear of the new Terry Gilliam film, The Zero Theorem, two days before actually getting to see it? If this were ten years ago and we were receiving word that a new Gilliam film, and one which supposedly serves as the third instalment in Gilliam's Orwellian trilogy following Brazil and 12 Monkeys, was screening at TIFF, we'd be frothing at the mouth for tickets. In 2014, I'm able to watch the spiritual follow-up to two of my all time favourite films on my laptop computer, and I did.
Considering The Zero Theorem's themes of technological isolation, perhaps my bleak bedside screening was befitting of the film, as it's essentially a story about a man glued to a screen. Like the protagonists of Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, 12 Monkeys, Zero Theorem's Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a worker-bee stooge, trapped into oppressive monotony by a controlling Orwellian society. The oppressing force is MANCOM, a company that purports to "make sense of the good things in life." The purpose of Qohen's feverishly intense job isn't entirely clear to him, but it may something to do with mathematically proving the meaning of life. The goal of his new assignment known as The Zero Theorem doesn't matter to him nearly as much as figuring out how to get work done in a world of distractions.
As with Brazil, in which Gilliam painted the '80s as a nightmarish world of gaudy consumerism and greed, today's present is exaggerated into an imagined future littered with cacophonous advertising. Qohen can't even walk to work without literally being followed by stalking advertisements. He also can't bear parties where everyone is more attached to their mobile tablets than socializing with one another. Qohen is not social, but he is determined to prove he's unique; driven by purpose, he demands to work from home, where he can comfortably do his work, feed his delusions, and dream of something more... when he isn't having nightmares about black holes.
Qohen is expertly played by Waltz, who approaches the Gilliam tragic figure with committed pathos and sympathetic humour. Like all of Gilliam's dystopic nightmares, the script, in addition to being clever and often genius, has moments of hilarity. Take every appearance by Tilda Swinton, who plays Qohen's via-skype therapist Dr. Shrink-Rom. Given Swinton's appearance in the recent Snowpiercer, it was striking how perfectly she fit into the "freakishly upper class woman of tomorrow" role, immortalized by the wide-mouthed mother image in Brazil and later reshaped into the government scientists of 12 Monkeys.
Even Matt Damon fares well in an uncharacteristically villainous role, portraying the corporate overlord known simply as Management. But the term "villain" isn't entirely accurate, as no Gilliam film can be boiled down into good and evil; if there's a villainous entity uniting the dystopia series, it's the futility of hope in the face of an incomprehensible system.
It's a tad bizarre to see Gilliam's surreal landscapes evolve into the CGI realm. Though it's fitting that virtual reality fantasy exists in the digital world, one can't help but also view the digitally painted backgrounds as another modern corruption of the old school. That doesn't mean the film doesn't contain some gorgeous eye candy. Overall, modern Gilliam fares well — better than many of his colleagues who have also been condemned to the Video-on-Demand world.
Gilliam's new film is no Brazil, nor, despite its twists, will it ever resonate to the degree in which 12 Monkeys blew minds back in '95 when the Varsity was a one-screen house. Still, despite not living up to "best movie ever" standards, The Zero Theorem is a worthy entry in the Gilliam conversation, with a vision that well deserves to be seen on a big screen in a dark, dreamlike atmosphere. Gilliam deserves nothing less.
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