Cert: 15 Runtime: 107 mins Director: Terry Gilliam Cast: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Ben Wishaw and Tilda Swinton
Putting the ‘you’ back in Utopia
Another film that I have missed this year was Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem. Personally you can’t go wrong with a bit of Gilliam, but the reviews and feedback for The Zero Theorem. Gilliam films are either you get it or you don’t, I am hoping for the latter with this film. So what is The Zero Theorem all about? Bald and eccentric computer boffin Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) toils reclusively in an abandoned church. He works for the bureaucratic near-future corporate hell that is Mancom, where Management (Matt Damon) sets him to work on the Zero Theorem. This incredibly complex formula is hoped to reveal the purpose of human existence. To perk Qohen up and focus his mind on the task at hand, Management sends in the seductive Bainsley (Melanie Thierry).There are elements of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis in Qohen’s philosophical quest, in the oddball characters he meets along the way, and his perennial absence of feeling. And in the Zen imagery of a nude Waltz spiralling through the void, there’s a bit of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. Both of those films were more coherent and emotionally engaging than The Zero Theorem, although Terry Gilliam’s film grows on you, once you accept that it’s not Brazil Part II. There are definite touches of Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece here, particularly the awkward marrying of archaic and ultra-modern technologies. But don’t expect a script of Tom Stoppard wit, swerve, and clarity.
Waltz is a fantastic presence – which is necessary, because most of the story plays out in his home: an echochamber of a converted church, whose baptismal font now serves as a washing up bowl. We see him at work, attempting to order the universe via a 3D game block game, fighting against entropy; against the inevitable demise of conscious matter and with it the question: What does it all mean? The problem is, he’s waiting for an answer. The very point is uncertainty, the propulsive force of our species.Whether all this makes for a particularly cinematic experience, I’m not sure. The Cronenberg and Aronofsky films I mentioned were successful because, for all their vast questions, their focus was narrow and their plots simple. The Zero Theorem is at its best when at its least manic – perhaps, its least ‘Gilliam-esque’ – lost in the quiet intimacy between Qohen and Bainsley. Like Wes Anderson’s latest, this feels like the film of an auteur fighting against two opposing impulses. The results, particularly when seen as a straightforward study of depression, are interesting, if not entirely successful.