I’m a big-time fan of Terry Gilliam; I’ve seen every feature-length film he’s directed except for Tideland, and I know I’m (almost) always in good hands (the very obvious exception being The Brothers Grimm, which had a handful of great moments amidst a largely chaotic mess). Brazil and Twelve Monkeys number amongst my all-time favorite films, which is why I’m so excited that Gilliam has played to the strengths of both those movies for his latest near-future masterpiece, called The Zero Theorem.
Gilliam has had a number of problems with distribution for this film, which is why he’s taken the interesting tactic of pre-releasing it for video-on-demand streaming to places like iTunes one month before its theatrical release in the US. I’m guessing that the hope here is to generate lots of buzz by word-of-mouth in order to get butts in movie theater seats, and I really hope it works, because this film deserves to be seen on the big screen; it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the next several weeks. I bought it on iTunes last night, and have watched it twice (I think I’ve got a better handle now on the symbolically heavy ending than after the first viewing).
Ever since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, I’ve tried to pay much more attention to the visual vocabulary of films, and The Zero Theorem would seem to reward this approach; Gilliam has never been a particularly strong storyteller on his own, which is why his best works are collaborations with others who are (Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on Brazil, Chris Marker and David & Janet Peoples on Twelve Monkeys, and now Pat Rushin on The Zero Theorem). His strength remains the visual rather than the verbal, and this new film exemplifies his command over the image; a freeze-frame on any moment in its 107-minute run-time is like a high-definition painting, the mise-en-scène always in control and artfully composed.
There’s a scene early on where our hero Qohen Leth (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) has been invited to a party by his gregarious supervisor Mr. Joby (David Thewlis, in one of his best performances), being held in a soon-to-be foreclosed mansion; nearly every single person in attendance is dancing to music that only they can hear through their white earbuds, plugged into devices that look suspiciously like next-gen iPads and iPhones. The mansion is full of people absorbed in their own little worlds, refusing to engage with anyone else in the real world. When Qohen—who only came to the party to persuade Management (Matt Damon) to let him work from home—starts choking on a grape, no one comes to his aid (and one person even takes a photo of him as he’s gasping for air), except for an enigmatic sexy young woman named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who will play a significant part later on (although she’ll drift dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory).
This striking scene encapsulates what Gilliam is more preoccupied with these days: not so much the oppressiveness of authority (although there is still a bit of that here too), but how “social” technology has isolated us from our fellow human beings more than ever. From The Guardian: “I find myself sitting at my computer and seduced by the internet. The web gives me access to all the knowledge in the world—but I worry to myself: do we have real relationships any more, or only virtual relationships?”
Qohen himself works as a “cruncher of esoteric entities” in the Ontological Research Division, sifting through vast oceans of public personal data (buying habits, favorite colors, political preferences, clothing brands), an extrapolation where the Facebookian proclivity to share all has been pushed to the extreme, so that it may be interpolated by the intelligent neural-net mainframe at Mancom, a shadowy megacorporation that wants to solve the question of whether all life and mass and energy in the universe will just disappear one day in The Big Crunch, so that everything and everyone that has ever existed will turn out to have been utterly pointless, reduced to zero. When Qohen is tasked with solving this question, called the Zero Theorem, he’s put in direct conflict with his unerring faith that the phone call he’s been expecting for most of his life will finally reach him and reveal his purpose in the universe.
Though so much of Qohen’s existence throughout the course of the movie is the internal landscape of his calculations and entity-crunching, it is his physical environments, and his relationships with Mr. Joby, Bainsley, and Management’s 15-year-old computer wunderkind son Bob (Lucas Hedges), that humanize him. His home is a burned-out church adjacent to a sex shop, abandoned long before by monastic monks, so gorgeously adorned and set-dressed that I was astonished to discover it was a created set rather than an actual rotting church, and it becomes another character in its own right. It’s interesting to note that while Qohen is engaged in solving the ultimate existential question, his home and his friends are what keep him grounded in the real world, and ultimately open him up to the implications of solving the Zero Theorem itself.
Supporting performances by Tilda Swinton as the buck-toothed Scottish virtual therapist Dr. Shrink-ROM (a kinder sort of companion to her northern English character in Snowpiercer), and Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw as the doctors who evaluate him for disability leave, and Gwendoline Christie (better known as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones) as one face of the intrusive interactive advertising that follows Qohen throughout his nameless European town, fill out the absurdities of Gilliam’s world. As opposed to the drab grey bureaucracy of Brazil, and the bleached-out duotones of the post-apocalyptic future in Twelve Monkeys, the exterior world of The Zero Theorem is a riot of color. The film has been called the final installment of Gilliam’s dystopian triptych, but this is a dystopia oversaturated to the point of neon, where the consumerist impulse is fed by bright sensory data rather than human nature being controlled by force, although in the end it is all just one more form of manipulation.
There are many echoes and callbacks to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. Slim and Chubs, two Laurel-and-Hardy-type clones in charge of bringing Bob to and from Qohen’s church, recall the Central Services technicians Spoor and Dowser. Mr. Joby feels like a kinder and more generous version of Michael Palin’s Jack Lint. The hairless physicality of Christoph Waltz echoes the baldness (and nakedness) of Bruce Willis’s James Cole, and Qohen’s existential angst is a direct descendant of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry. Bob calls everyone else Bob, just like the homeless prophet in Twelve Monkeys. The tubes-and-wires bio-technological system that Qohen uses to crunch entities, and the lighting used in Qohen’s church, are reminiscent of both films. The gigantic mainframe at Mancom, referenced from a grimy disused boiler room, feels like the inverse of the cooling tower used in the torture of Sam Lowry. And instead of Sam Lowry’s magical fantasies of escaping his reality by becoming the Hero, we get Qohen Leth’s inverse obsession about the meaninglessness of existence.
(Unrelated, but I also loved the musical touch of including a jazzy piano cover version of Radiohead’s “Creep” as the background music on Bainsley’s website before she and Qohen have haptic virtual sex.)
So there you have it, an existential visually stunning retro-futuristic dystopia directed by an American, starring a German, co-starring a Frenchwoman and a Briton, and filmed in Romania. See it however you can.