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THE ZERO THEOREM (2014) review

September 21, 2014

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written by: Pat Rushin
produced by: Nicolas Chartier and Dean Zanuck
directed by: Terry Gilliam
rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: August 19, 2014 (VOD, iTunes & Amazon) and September 19, 2014 (limited)

 

With “The Zero Theorem”, his first film since 2009’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”, Terry Gilliam returns to an iteration of the near-future world he’s known for, in films like “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys”. In fact, the director’s latest offering is said to be a conclusion of sorts to his dystopian trilogy, filled with the same anxious and paranoid tone where a protagonist struggles in a structured environment dominated by either a authoritarian society or domineering corporate entity. While it’s a welcome return for fans of Gilliam’s perspective in this sci-fi subgenre, I had a slight feeling of trepidation going into “The Zero Theorum”, wondering if the visually enticing director is regurgitating previous themes and ideas.

Rest assured, this is less of a Gilliam rehash than it is an absorbing look at where we’re at today and where we could be heading very soon.

Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is one of many programming drones employed at the behemoth Mancam Corporation. At work, the super-serious introvert plugs in and toggles the controls of a colorful digital apparatus, like a catatonic video game player. At home, he is similarly plugged in, but he’s plagued by his anticipation of a mysterious phone call he hopes will illuminate meaning to his mundane life. Obsessed by this, Qohen takes a special job that Management (Matt Damon) offers, giving him the ability to work from home while trying to solve the titular mathematical formula, which would ultimately prove that zero equals 100%.

Why that is needed is unclear, but it falls in line with all the other monotonous tasks performed in Qohen’s daily drudgery. He seems to be the only one who questions his lot in life, as well as his surroundings or cares about what he ingests (in terms of both sustenance and intellect). Everyone else appears perfectly content to go about the monotony of their lives.

 

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Frustrated by his inability to crack the Zero Theorem code, the awkward Qohen is distracted by Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), an attractive stranger he bumped into at a chaotic party his boss, Joby (David Thewlis) threw. He’s also given a young assistant named Bob (Lucas Hedges), the son of Management, who disturbs Qohen’s structured way of life he has held on to. The two characters, enlighten and exacerbate Qohen, increasing his paranoia as he continues to become unhinged, losing himself in virtual fantasy worlds and recurring dreams of a black hole sucking him out of his current existence.

Not only is Gilliam providing another take on the dystopian future sci-fi subgenre, he immerses the audience in the sub-subgenre of existential sci-fi as well. Throughout the film, Qohen refers to himself as “we” and “our”, which he eventually explains this manner of speaking by explaining “we’re all the same” – so why maintain an artificial concept of individuality. Gilliam is in no way subtle with his existentialism, working off a screenplay from Pat Rushin (making his feature-length debut), who was inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes, a book that reiterates that “everything is meaningless”. Indeed, if nothing equals 100%, or everything, then “everything is nothing” (as the film’s poster states) – so one can either indulge in pleasures or confound oneself in philosophical and existential struggles. Qohen is doing both.

As the story unfolds, Rushin and Gilliam have Qohen engage in physical contact with others, something that has obviously been missing in his life. From shaking hands to an eventual kiss on the lips from Bainsley, from pain to pleasure. She is Her forward personality in person, but later reconnects with her online where he learns she’s a webcam stripper who engages her subjects in an online fantasy environment (full body suit required), like one in which the bald Qohen has a head of hair and finds himself on a sunset beach with Bainsley.

 

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The notion of “love” enters Qohen’s strange interactions with Bainsley, but it’s hard to ascertain to what degree and what concept the recluse has of love. For a man who primarily lives inside his own head, his expectations and definitions of love would seem self-serving and limited. From our perspective, it doesn’t feel like a plausible relationship could develop between the pair, since the two are such polar opposites. Even though opposites attract, Waltz and Thierry have very little chemistry to convince us anything could happen.

The character of Bainsley becomes a “love interest”, whereas the role would’ve been more interesting if she was written as one who challenges Qohen to get outside of his head and engage in life’s desires without any sexual allure. Couldn’t she exist to assist him in finding himself, instead of being of carnal desire? There is some of that here, but just not what it could be.

Although some of the characters in “The Zero Theorem” may be thinly realized, the performances offered make up for it. In supporting roles, Thierry and Hedges both provide counter personalities to Qohen that make for lively interaction with the protagonist. This is especially apparent in the scenes with Hedges and Waltz, with Hedges playing a young man completely oblivious to Qohen’s dilemma. Unfortunately, Thewlis doesn’t fare so well, portraying a one-note character that really doesn’t have much to him at all. Maybe that’s the point, but that could’ve been communicated with a few nuances added to the character, which may be the screenplay’s fault. Thewlis is definitely an actor who can add measurably more to a role though, but here it feels like he’s playing a Jim Broadbent character.

Tilda Swinton has a minor role as Dr. Shrink-Rom, a virtual therapist that Mancam has made available for Qohen. Swinton’s presence is usually a welcome one, but here she’s distracting and mostly comes across as “Tilda Swinton In A Cameo Role” rather than disappearing into her digital role. It’s obviously meant to be comical, and it is at first, but the actress is too overbearing, distracting us from what could’ve been a cold element in the film that dispenses diagnosis rather than any sound prognosis.

 

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Thankfully, Waltz is fascinating to watch throughout the film. He loses himself in the role, starting with the physicality of a predominately hairless figure, down to the choice steer clear of alcohol and junk food. Ironic that his domicile is a rundown (forgotten?) old church (possibly in London? It’s never quite clear which near-future city the film is set in), as if he is the last remaining monk of a sect. Despite Waltz playing a character we’ve seen before – actually, he’s kind of an amalgam of Jonathan Pryce’s character in “Brazil” and Bruce Willis’ character in “12 Monkeys” come to think of it – watching this weird, somewhat pathetic guy, was as interesting and enjoyable as the leads in those other two movies. Waltz conveys an understandable curiosity and hesitancy to this unraveling man who draws us in not just to who he is, but also who he wants to be.

There’s an unintentional humor about the character that is entertaining. He spends the entire picture pronouncing his name to those he encounters, “Cohen, Q – no U”, while his boss obliviously calls him “Quinn”. That, and some other quirky mannerisms are enjoyable to watch, but Waltz also delivers the subtleties of a tragic character as well. This grounds us to his reality. Qohen can be amusing to watch, especially when he is misunderstood and ignored, but the underlying sadness in his life really clue us in to how lost he is.

Being lost in a dystopian Gilliam film though is quite easy. “The Zero Theorem” gives us the atmosphere and elements we’ve come to expect from the director. The colorful and bustling chaos of Qohen’s surrounding environment can be seen the first time he steps outside his quite domain. Amid the cacophony of digital signs and zooming Smart cars, ads floating in the air can be seen, trying to convince of certain deals and products and promoting “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”, of all things. Quite funny, that. And yet also, quite true. Rushin’s imagination is heightening where humans are now. The delivery may be hitting us over the head, but that could be the point, I suppose. The film’s budget does show during these street scenes, making it feel like we’re walking into a studio back lot. I’m totally okay with that, it’s just that it was noticeable.

“The Zero Theorem” may suffer from sending obvious messages to us on technological reliance, surveillance and self-doubt, but Gilliam has a soulful and strange performance from Waltz to be our guide in it all. Much like the algebra we studied as teenagers, the mathematical formula Qohen struggles with proves worthless and what is ultimately more important is his own identity crisis as he ponders life’s meaning and the live he chooses to live.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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