Review: The Zero Theorem (2014)

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Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon & Tilda Swinton
Runtime: 107 min // Certificate: 15


Mark Kermode recently described The Zero Theorem as “Gilliam at his most Gilliam”, which is just the perfect description of this wonderful but imperfect film. As the final chapter in his loose, decade-spanning “dystopian satire” triptych (which also includes 1985’s Brazil and 1995’s Twelve Monkeys), Gilliam’s latest is like a treatise on the aimlessness of work and the death of creativity, so much so that it almost becomes a literal portrayal of the sheer pointlessness of life. “Gilliam at his most Gilliam” indeed…

The central concept of The Zero Theorem is so simple that it’s quite easy to miss much of the film’s barmy complexity. Qohen (pronounced “CO-EN”, not “CONE” or “QUIN”, as he tells you about 1000 times) is a computer genius with some serious existential issues. He lives in an Orwellian, corporate dystopia in which the population is kept content with parties, cybersex and pizza (not too dissimilar to our World then…), though Qohen wants much more from life than simple pleasures. He believes that a phone call – which will tell him his true purpose – is due any day now, so he requests time off work so that he doesn’t miss it. The Management (Damon) grants him the opportunity to work from home on a project called “The Zero Theorem”, the purpose of which is to prove that life, the universe and everything in it amounts to absolutely nothing. Qohen’s task is to piece together a computer program in which “zero equals 100%”, though the harder he works, the more  trivial distractions he encounters.

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At its heart, this is a film about how we’re all just tools of “the system”. However, this is Gilliam so there’s obviously much more going on than that. The film explores faith, romance, loneliness, existential crises, the purpose of life, the collapse of social interaction, and corporatism in the modern World. On a more fantastical level, it explores how we are all pawns in the chaotic emptiness of the universe, and that everything we say and do is for nothing. These ideas are vast, wondrous and infinitely complex… though I think the decision to approach them all in one fell swoop pays off absolutely brilliantly.

Of course, one of the great things about The Zero Theorem is that even when it doesn’t quite work, the failure is always glorious. This is perhaps Gilliam’s most courageous film in that he just throws everything he can at the screen in the hope that some of it will stick. The sets are chaotic and crowded while the costumes are a peculiar combination of banal and absurd. It doesn’t all work – in fact, some of it outright fails – but it’s still a pleasure to see Gilliam fail in such a creative way. Even when the film feels like it’s falling to pieces however, the great performances (with the real stand out being, weirdly enough, Lucas Hedges as the Management’s son) are more than enough to keep you engaged.

Now, a major criticism of the film has been that the humour doesn’t work; on this point, I disagree wholeheartedly. Gilliam’s satirical, pessimistic touches litter the piece marvellously. It’s junky, campy and kitsch but it’s a marvellous indulgence. There is a wealth of visual gags, from signs to adverts to costumes and even locations (I love, for example, the sheer notion of a sex shop next door to a dilapidated old church), that are multi-layered and, much more importantly, highly amusing. Not every joke works, of course it doesn’t, but yet again the failures are so ambitious that one can’t help but respect them. Gilliam revels in the chaotic, disparate nature of the plot with a verve that is almost Python-esque in its absurdity, and it makes for a truly fascinating watch.

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I think, however, that if you’re after the next Brazil or Twelve Monkeys you might a bit be disappointed. The Zero Theorem is a different kettle of fish entirely; it’s still dark, it’s still satirical and it retains much of Gilliam’s trademark pessimism, but it’s also one of the scattiest post-Python films he’s ever done. There’s a hell of a lot going on and it doesn’t all come together with a great deal of coherence, but the themes are so vast and so plentiful that this doesn’t matter all that much. In fact, the lack of glue suits the central narrative of the piece rather well, so there’s almost a deep purpose to the film’s chaotic temperament.

In essence then, it is an ambitious but often flawed film, though don’t let the flaws put you off because it’s still a gloriously entertaining watch. If you’re a fan of Gilliam’s work you’ll no doubt find much to enjoy, though newcomers might want to test the water with some of his earlier films as certain parts of it are a bit heavy. The ideas that the film explores are all classic Gilliam too, and though there’s perhaps a bit too much going on, it’s such an immersive experience that one can’t help but be attracted to the sheer pandemonium of the enterprise. Just like Qohen’s work, The Zero Theorem never quite equals 100% but it does – at times – comes close, and often frustratingly so.

Or, to put it another way; The Zero Theorem might not be perfect but it’s a damn sight better than most of the tat that I’ve sat through this year, purely on account of its unabashed, Gilliam-brand anarchy. Fair enough, it’s no Brazil (or Time Bandits, Twelve Monkeys or even Baron Munchausen…) but it’s still a great little film that gives me some hope for 2014, which so far has been a bit of a wash-out…