The Zero Theorem (2013) – Review

Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Pat Rushin
Starring Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton

Well, it fits anyway. Terry Gilliam refers to his project here as the third part of his satirical dystopian Orwellian triptych. With this, accompanying Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, you can easily recognise the pattern, but whilst TZT is familiar in tone and style, it probably has the least to say and the most trouble knowing what it wants to get across. Even the main theme, the thread of the entire plot, is a questionably futile search for meaning. Maybe Gilliam is being more honest here than he realises or intends.
Rushin admittedly knocked up the first draft of this mind-bender “without really knowing what I was doing”, so as a  viewer you may be forgiven for being a little lost yourself, as the story of Qohen Leth (Waltz, pictured) and his struggle to find the meaning of existence apparently trapped in a mathematcial conundrum extrapolated by solving a three dimensional puzzle on his computer that suggest that zero equals one hundred percent is at best, challenging. Confused? Well, join an ever-increasing club.
Displaying at least some of the qualities of the insane. Qohen repeatedly, expectantly and enthusiastically picks up the telephone, for example, assuming a different result on each occasion, where the probability of receiving the phone call he wants should be diminished by each successive failure. He does not understand or accept this as possible, telling us a great deal about his character.Once gleaned, you may look at this film from a different light because the clues to the unhinged tone are far more obvious in the main characters here than in the previous two films in this imagined trilogy. The overbearing sense of control (or lack of it, from the perspective of the ‘little people’ featured) in both Brazil and Twelve Monkeys was uppermost and allowed the viewer to regard evil and paranoia in the form of a mostly faceless corporate behemoth that was expressing its machinations in the shadows to an end that held little regard for those that ultimately helped achieve it. In short, Gilliam has been a little more transparent in TZT than in his previous efforts, possibly making any ‘bad guy’ less mysterious and threatening.

Casting Matt Damon as ‘The Management’ with chameleon overtones could be a nod to being able to communicate at many levels, slipping into whatever suit fits his purpose at the time, but nonetheless, this head of the mighty corporation for which Qohen is employed is significantly less outwardly dangerous than previous incarnations of Gilliam’s perceived mistrust of an unforgiving, overbearing society that he feels doesn’t really relate to him, or he to it. Whether that is intentional or just a sign that Gilliam is softening as he gets older, is open to question.

Sublime and ridiculous, Gilliam’s sets are always highly inventive and fascinating to see. As a grateful viewer, you will be keen to regard how these shots are dressed, as much as what is said and acted out within them. In this respect, Wes Anderson owes Gilliam a considerable debt. Here, the similarity ends quite abruptly, however, as Gilliam, fighting the good fight once more, regails us with the story of one mans’ personal struggle and the obstacles thrown in his way to get to the truth which he sees as the ultimate goal above all other things, more than power, money, or even love.

Performance-wise, there are few faults, Waltz and Melanie Thierry are both very engaging, as are the support cast,  most notably Tilda Swinton and David Thewlis, but all struggle with a script that just doesn’t make as much sense to the viewer as it does the creators. This is the films’ biggest flaw, finding difficulty to truly engage the audience to the main characters throungh an innocent inability to understand or feel for their plight as fully as we might.

In summary, another beautiful, imaginative, colourful picture from Gilliam that nicely brings his trilogy to a close, but short on closure as an individual piece. Tragic, rather than comic, there are few laughs here, but you will still glory at the marvels Gilliam has to show you.

 

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