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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Review: The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam is certainly one of the more enigmatic directors of our time. He’s given us some of my favorite movies of all time in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, and is always a beacon of hope (and sometimes tragedy) for independent filmmakers with a unique voice. While his recent endeavors didn’t quite capture my heart like some of his classics, Gilliam’s efforts never cease to be stunningly original–although not always from one another. Was this the case with his newest film, The Zero Theorem, which many have suggested reclaims the magic and thematic philosophy of Brazil?

The Zero Theorem follows Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a number cruncher for a giant corporation that aims to ‘Make sense of what’s good’ in a loud, shiny future. He is a deeply disturbed individual who always refers to himself in the plural (we, us) and who wants to work from home, so he won’t miss ‘the call’–a mythic phone call in which the person on the other end will tell him what his life’s purpose is. The Management at Mancorp, played with great ambiguity by Matt Damon, grants Qohen this wish, so long as he works on the Zero Theorem, a mathematical proof that, if solved, proves that the entire universe means nothing and will eventually collapse on itself. Along the way, he is aided (or distracted, depending on your perspective) by a beautiful call girl and Management’s prodigiously brilliant teenage son, both whom start to bring Qohen out of his zombie-like state and offer different reasons for his existence.

It’s a strange, complex film, to be sure, and Gilliam’s world-building is all over it. While the world is very technologically advanced, it has it’s fair share of visually arresting anachronisms: data is stored in glowing test tubes that are grabbed by mysterious hands upon completion, Qohen lives in a burnt out cathedral, and, of course, there are old-fashioned ducts that connect disparate parts of Mancorp’s supercomputer. While we only see the outside world a few times–unfortunately a sign more of budgetary constraints than of narrative ones–it is futuristic but obnoxiously familiar in its chaotic noisiness and aggressive advertising.

The Zero Theorem is full of big ideas, but explores them with almost too much subtlety. There’s the sense that Qohen is a religious man whose faith is being tested, and a rich irony that his purpose may be to prove that there is no purpose to anything, but beyond that he doesn’t have a whole lot of character. Of course, he is intentionally flat, but because he isn’t a whimsical dreamer like Brazil’s Sam Lowry and not the action star of Twelve Monkeys, the movie comes off as a little preachy in its philosophy. Not that it pushes one idea over another, but that there isn’t a whole lot to latch onto outside of those ideas. Narratively it plays somewhat dreamlike, which can make it at times seem unmotivated and a bit boring.

That said, the ideas presented here are quite interesting and worth repeated viewings. The most interesting themes are often introduced by the supporting cast, particularly in Bainsley, the call girl he meets at a work party. She develops an interesting relationship with Qohen, especially as they delve into an over-the-internet virtual reality, where Qohen suddenly is able to open up because ‘nothing matters’ there. Here he can eat what he wants, say what he wants, and have sex with a woman he is attracted to, and he almost manically begins to do so. Underplaying all of their conversations is the idea that she might be actually falling in love with him–or it might all be an act, a service used by Management to relax its most stressed employee. Nothing is certain here, just as Qohen’s Raison d'être is always up in the air, but more importantly: does a lack of purpose make life meaningless, or does it completely and utterly free us of all constraints?

A repeated musical theme used in The Zero Theorem is a jazzy cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, which plays each time Qohen enters Bainsley’s online reality. In many ways, this song sums up the ideas behind the movie: “I wish I was special,” “What the hell am I doing here?” and “I don’t belong here” all eloquently yet simply speak to the existential crisis faced by Qohen. I’m sure Gilliam’s latest will present a challenging viewing to many, as it is admittedly not his most entertaining film, but the themes here are as pertinent and cleverly molded into a story as his best. This falls neatly within the category of his last few films–somewhat lacking his fun personality in the characters, but bursting at the seams with scathing criticism and colossal concepts that are sure to provoke many a thought-provoking discussion.
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