You know folks, I generally love Terry Gilliam’s work. To the point of even having a category of writers and directors called “Terry Gilliam types”, what is a Terry Gilliam type? It’s an American director who approaches his or her work with humour, inspirations and choices that are more like a British or European Director. In this category includes the likes of Wes Anderson and Joss Whedon. I said I generally love Gilliam’s work, but does that mean Gilliam has made masterpiece after masterpiece? No. He has done some fantastic films like Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, Brazil and 12 Monkeys. Great films like The Fisher King, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and Time Bandits. And Marmite films like The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen and Tideland (a film I adore when I approached it like suggested). While some of his work is questionable in terms of its written quality, there is no denying that visually and character-wise, few directors can match the unique quirks and choices to his films. So…what can I say about his latest film, The Zero Theorem? Well…
Some call The Zero Theorem the last of the “Brazil” Trilogy (it isn’t) mostly because of how similar it is to both Brazil and 12 Monkeys. It’s set in a nightmarish dystopian future where our star, Qohen Leth (played by a hairless Christoph Waltz) works as a programmer of a company called Mancom, who are basically Big Brother/1984, and headed by a man who is actually called Management (played by a white haired Matt Damon). Judging from the nature of Qohen’s work – imagine being able to earn money/make a living by playing what looks like a video game that occasionally has bike pedals attached to it? That’s what Qohen’s life is…and he is concerned. The story apparently borrows a lot of elements from the book of Ecclesiates. A book which is known to Christians as being 1 of the most cynical and grumpy books of the bible, as it involves the author looking back on his life and saying it was all useless and meaningless (and then coming to a more meaningful conclusion). Therefore, our main character is seeing life as meaningless, and dreams of a black hole almost every night. What holds his sanity together is a waiting. An anticipation for a phone call that he believes will make him very happy. It has such a grip on him that he feels uncomfortable being out of the house. When he finally meets Management in person, he asks him if he can work from home so that he’d have a better chance receiving that phone call. After this conversation, Qohen stays at home for over a year.
Qohan lives in what used to be a Catholic Church, and here is where the story begins to fall flat (for a Gilliam film). Most Gilliam movies often involve a fantastic journey or adventure. 1 where the scenery is constantly changing or 1 where we’re in a house, but we get to see all of the rooms, gardens and surrounding areas in time. Zero Theorem does change scenery from time to time, but most of the film is spent in this old church, as Qohan chooses to become a hermit/recluse who almost never goes out. With the help of Bob (Management’s son, played by Lucas Hedges) and Bainsley (A woman he met at a party arranged by Management, played by Mélanie Thierry), Qohan does open up more to the world by ordering pizza deliveries and having virtual holidays (He and Bainsley go to a fake tropical island online via virtual reality, where he has all of his hair). But management never stops watching him, even in his home. Despite the themes that the film imply, there is little focus to the film itself. It hasn’t got a strong goal that it’s heading towards, and a majority of the film felt like a near 2-hour long David Firth cartoon with tons more colour and spectacle. To say the least, it all felt meaningless and even boring. I was disappointed. If it’s meant to be a reflection of some people’s lives in reality (such as Japan’s Hikikomoris or people who prefer online messengers/forums over meeting up) and how technology has made the world both very big (in digital information and connection) and very small (in the physical journey to information and connection) then I guess it has done its job.
Visually, The Zero Theorum reminds me of not only other Gilliam Sci-Fi movies, but also video games like Remember Me (with a slight carnival feel mixed into it). It’s all spectacular to look at and the painted backgrounds add a surprising charm to the landscape.
The characters, despite being colourful and interesting, feel a lot more underdeveloped this time. Gilliam has included a lot of his crazy authority and surrounding figures to complement his miserable protagonist. But it feels a lot more shallow than other films.
The acting is very good with the possible exception of Lucas Hedges as Bob. I honestly don’t know what to make of him. I don’t know whether he’s a bad actor or whether his character is as confident and know-it-all as he seems. Either way he doesn’t show a big range of emotions. Also, Tilda Swinton as Dr Shrink-ROM (Qohan’s shrink) is a very surprising choice. Not bad at all though as I haven’t seen her in a role like this before.
The music is good, but Gilliam has described it as being like a ghost, another character that can’t be seen. All I remember from it is the lounge version of Creep (by Radiohead) performed by Karen Souza. It was very nice.
The film’s cinematography was excellent. But nothing particularly caught my eye about it this time (as in “Wow, that was beautifully shot! Can I use this?”)
Would I recommend this film? Probably not. Terry Gilliam is still a fantastic director with his own unique and interesting style that is constantly giving. But with his giving, we don’t always get Miyazaki masterpieces. The Zero Theorem is to Terry Gilliam what Tales Of Earthsea is to Studio Ghibli. It wasn’t even that funny, despite the nature of its characters and visual appeal. I guess you can say the 1 thing that can make a Gilliam film disappointing is the story, even if his characters and visuals are great. And this is once again the case.
Acting: **** (some key actors are particularly good)
Characters: ***1/4 (interesting, but not too well developed)
Music: *** (1 memorable track, the rest is good)
Visuals/Design: **** (Gilliam does it again and in a good way)
Story: 1/4* (Unfocused, boring, small journey, little overcome, provides 1 possible viewpoint more so than grey area, more or less unexplained and unjustified, could have been developed more. The writer Pat Rushin said he had no idea what he was doing when he wrote it, and it possibly shows.)
Cinematography: **** (As good as most of his films)
Overall: *** out of 5