Has it really been 29 years since Terry Gilliam’s Brazil? And 19 since Twelve Monkeys? I guess so. File those facts under “time flying by when you’re having movie fun.” Now, in 2014, the eternal Lost Boy of Cinema returns to seemingly (supposedly?) close out this loose dystopian trilogy with The Zero Theorem, a movie about the quest to prove that “everything, in fact, adds up to nothing.”
Before I delve any deeper, it is important to say that the movie looks PURE 100% GILLIAM. All of his signature absurdist touches are there: perpetual motion cameras (check!), kitschy-yet-melancholic color palates and fake cityscapes (check!), and, well, yes – all manner of overexaggerated haircuts AND hairpieces, something he has championed since his Monty Python days (CHECK!). In the middle of it all is the very bald, very lost, very sad Qohen Leth (the kind of man whose name is often mispronounced and/or forgotten which doesn’t prevent him from referring to himself in the Royal “WE” at all times). His hermit like, seemingly pointless existence (he works, he walks, he eats but is really just sitting around waiting for a call he once missed to tell him what it is ALL about) is somewhat interrupted when the omnipresent Management of the world he inhabits asks him to take on a super secret mission of proving the aforementioned Zero Theorem. The irony of proving that ALL is actually about NOTHING seems to be lost on him, and he sets out to do his task in the most earnest of ways imaginable.
In an effort to presumably keep things interesting on this essentially solitary, Gilliam sends all sorts of distractions along the way in the shape of a software shrink, a nosy colleague/overseer, a teenage computer renegade, and – maybe most importantly – a call girl siren both virtual and real. It all adds up to a frenetic enough ride, but while Brazil was a deep, clever, narrative driven satire, and 12 Monkeys thrived on the jaggedy edges of true paranoia, something about The Zero Theorem never quite ignites.
Why does that happen? It is certainly not the cast’s fault, which was clearly plucked from the fan letters sent to Gilliam by movie stars over the years asking him to be in some (ANY!) project of his. Qohen is played by Christopher Waltz (whose outstanding bone structure belies ANY potential extreme haircut and shines in an almost CGI glow when put in the spotlight by his glistening baldness). The Management is embodied by Matt Damon (as, essentially, Karl Lagerfeld), while Tilda Swinton is the virtual shrink and David Thewlis and the cherubic Melanie Thierry round out the gang. Everyone is game, everyone does what they are told, and everyone fully buys into the world they’re inhabiting.
The movie’s problem is that in 2014, the audience needs more. In 2014, in order to be disruptive and weird and challenging, it is no longer enough to simply wave a “Government is bad/We’re all being brainwashed” thematic flag. You need an angle. In 2014, in order to be seen as a visual trailblazer, creating a cheeky, semi-virtual sex den is simply not going to cut it. In 2014, you need to out-Gilliam your Gilliam-ness to still be considered Gilliam. In 2014 we, as a movie goers, were given the goddamn Snowpiercer and now that is something you need to contend with.
Still, there is a certain charm to the almost old-fashionedness of it all, and when the movie does embrace its own flaws and shows an inkling of a sense of true, Gilliam worthy humor about them EVERYTHING (and NOTHING) lights up (the ending especially).
The thing is, the ideas The Zero Theorem was hatched on still matter, and it nice to be reminded that they’ve mattered to the movie-making and movie-going audience for a while. It is just a shame that the man who to many has pioneered this particular point of view failed to evolve beyond his disciples.