Terry Gilliam… He’s on my top 5 list for best directors of all time, and with good reason (explained below).
As an audience member watching one of his sci-fi films, how can you not sit there completely transposed as you bare witness to the carefully crafted, dystopian world that unfolds in front of you? He’s mesmerized us over the years with worlds full of surrealism and color, bordering on the absurd, yet always incredibly rich and granular. The man is a master of the medium, clearly an accomplished auteur, and need I say, a national treasure. Yet despite all these facts, it appears as though some people don’t care for his unique sci-fi filmmaking style as much as they used to, because this film isn’t getting great reviews. Now, if I’m being honest, truth is I find myself disagreeing with a lot of film reviews anyway, so this kind of thing doesn’t surprise me. I also openly welcome you to disagree with what I have to say on the matter. Ultimately, one would hope people are willing to take a chance on something they deem interesting and upon doing so, be able to formulate their own analysis on the piece as a whole, independent to whatever the popular consensus is. The fact that it got subpar reviews for the most part kind of irked me, because I’m of the opinion that the Gilliam-magic is still very much present in this last offering! Let’s dig a little deeper…
We live in a “chatter-box” type of world. I mean, we just do. Even if you live in the boonies you are more than likely subjected to this.
Allow me to elaborate.
It’s becoming increasingly harder and harder for folk to pay attention to things of “real importance” in life, like for example: The Kardashians! I mean… Wait, what were we talking about again? Oh yeah, forget my forgetfulness, meant to say something more along the lines of moral duty and what’s the meaning of life but the telescreen inexplicably hovered in front of my face, forcing me to consume 15 seconds of MTV programming… Teen mom 2 is on… Wait, seriously… What were we talking about!? I kid. MTV died and went to TV hell ages ago. Moving along (I’m keeping my day job don’t worry), I’m sure we can all agree that media can be a problem. On top of having to compete with all these groups that constantly and aggressively demand our attention, we also have to deal with invalid/hard to validate information coming from every source that’s supposed to feed us valid information. And all this while juggling the good ‘ol 8-5. So, how are we supposed to figure out who we are? I don’t have time, and that Netflix queue ain’t gonna take care of itself. The Zero Theorem candidly incorporates these themes into its story. In a fun, Gilliamesque way of course.
The film opens with (don’t worry I’m not spoiling the film) Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who finds himself in a stupor of despair as it’s immediately established that he’s playing slave to the master that is his oppressive environment. As soon as he walks out the door every day, he’s rushed into what seems like an inescapable barrage of violations against his self in the form of extreme advertisements, and in every other case, fellow human beings. The man is not to be bothered as he somehow remains impervious amidst this vast sea of artificiality. This man is also very much damaged; a self-loathing misanthrope if you will. Yet another thing that happens immediately is: subversion. We the audience are instantly thrown into a twisted, hyper-real version of present day western world, and in unapologetic, sometimes hilarious ways, subjected to its predatory/ridiculous aspects.
From here on out we’re quickly introduced to the main character’s through line as we start to learn about the rules of this world, the things our main character has to endure, and the people that surround him. Among many cool characters we meet along the journey, the are a few we should pay close attention to: the people pleasing Joby (David Thewlis), the stoic and mysterious Management (Matt Damon), and the raw but playful Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). Our main character’s life begins to change as he gets assigned to a special project, basically being tasked to prove something called the Zero Theorem by manipulating so called entities through the use of a computer interface that reminded me of Ian Softley’s classic “too cool for school” film Hackers. (Yes, it is a classic)
The film expands and contracts throughout the second act rather fluidly and character arching is handled well. Pacing and overall tone remained consistent and thoroughly enjoyable. The film has good humor as well as some sobering moments, and it’s packed with amazing visuals (it’s a Terry Gilliam film in every way). Sound design and cinematography were also delightful. The performances were great, and directing, well… Masterful as always. I really have nothing negative to say about the film whatsoever. The themes of the film are universal and could be interpreted as philosophical at times. It does hit you over the head with certain topics, but that’s a thing Gilliam is known for doing, so no fault there. The satire might feel despondent to some but to me, it felt like it came from a place of deep creativity. For the most part, it’s a quite inspiring piece of work. In a weird way. Effective, bizarre and poetic.
At the end of the film, I walked away with a recognizable feeling. I felt the same way I felt after watching every other Terry Gilliam sci-fi film: extremely satisfied and with an excited imagination. I’d say the film delivered greatness! At its core, The Zero Theorem is a dystopian film about loss in a world that substitutes real value with fake value, or rather stealth detriment. We watch a broken man perform the impossible task of trying to achieve fulfillment inside an invariable bubble of confusion, failing at every turn, grasping the dangling carrot at times. His actions are futile because what he’s solving towards is pointless to begin with. Or is it? And… Isn’t that something we can all relate to on some level!? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps so. Still a fascinating film, and I recommend you go watch it in a theater near you! Out on limited release in a theater far from you, actually. Oops!