2014, Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is always going to be one of those directors who I consider a personal favorite, even though at this point it’s been a while (almost a decade) since he’s made a truly great picture. Since Twelve Monkeys, his last excellent work, he’s been toiling away in interesting but flawed projects like the entertaining but studio-sliced Brothers Grimm and the chaotic, underrated Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. While he continues to try to raise up his endlessly-in-development-hell adaptation of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (which is back in pre-production again — we’ll see how long that lasts), Gilliam managed to find enough time to churn out another feature, perhaps his smallest yet, titled The Zero Theorem. While taking place primarily in one room, The Zero Theorem also encompasses larger themes of a detailed, technologically advanced world as it sets itself in a future dystopia not dissimilar to the one that Gilliam created in his greatest masterpiece, Brazil.
In fact, Zero Theorem perhaps invites a few too many comparisons to that magnificent picture, to a point where it looks worse by comparison as its unfocused script never manages to have the same kind of pop or energy that Brazil tore up in every frame. While that film had so much on its mind in terms of biting social commentary and riveting entertainment value, The Zero Theorem doesn’t do much of either and finds itself mostly centered on a singular story of one man that stretches itself out far too long. Written by Pat Rushin (his first screenplay), this is the story of a computer whiz named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a peculiar man who is assigned by his boss, known only as Management, to crack an equation in order to prove that life itself is meaningless. It’s a weighty premise to base your movie on, but instead of probing into the complexities of such a mission, Rushin’s script opens up a few interesting ideas early on before simply dancing around them for 95% of the movie and then awkwardly trying to wrap things up as ambiguously as possible in the final ten minutes.
As always, Gilliam is a magnificent world-builder in every sense of the word and he constructs Leth’s environment (the film is mainly located in Leth’s home, where he is allowed to take his work once getting the assignment) seamlessly with so much going on, yet never losing sight of his main character and the journey he’s on. With all of its visual splendor and magnificent production design, I can certainly say I never became tired of watching The Zero Theorem but with a script so unfocused I can’t say at the end of it all that I’m entirely sure what the point was. Though maybe for a movie all about a man trying to formulate an equation to prove that life is meaningless that is…the point? I doubt it, because if it were I probably wouldn’t have left this experience feeling so empty. Rushin tosses in a quick and vague resolution in the final act that includes a conversation with Management himself (played in a brief appearance by Matt Damon) which is so on-the-nose in its anti-religious angle that it leaves a bitter taste but at the same time the ideas it brings up are interesting to reflect on.
There’s a lot in The Zero Theorem that’s open to interpretation and I’d venture to say that it’s too open by means of a script that doesn’t have the intelligence to develop itself fully so instead it relies on lazy ambiguity to give off the false impression of deeper meaning. Gilliam’s direction is sincere and helps to keep the film moving along at a relatively digestible pace, but he can’t make up for Rushin’s frustrating writing or the derivative nature of a man honing in on past successes without bringing anything new to the table. If there’s any saving grace for The Zero Theorem it’d be Christoph Waltz in the leading role, who starts off a little too heavy on the tics (thanks to a script that writes in a few too many meaningless oddities throughout to try to make up for its lack of depth) but eventually he forms an emotional arc and sincere investment in Leth that I never would have expected after watching the first act. Overall, as a big Gilliam fan (still), this was unquestionably a disappointment but at the same time there was enough to keep me somewhat interested throughout and not entirely opposed to the experience.