Sunday, September 28, 2014

THE ZERO THEOREM Is Another Satirical Journey Into the Imagination from Terry Gilliam


- First of all, let's just put this out there: Terry Gilliam is one of those great, great directors and creative minds who, honestly ... I'm just glad that he is still making movies. Even when those movies are flawed, they are fascinating, stunning to look at, and great conversation-starters. So to those who found flaw in Gilliam's latest, THE ZERO THEOREM, and who have decided to gleefully trash it, I say for shame. I'm not saying to just give it a pass. I am saying to talk about it in the proper context. For me, this is a film that yes, falls short of Gilliam's greatest sci-fi films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. But man, there is still so much goodness here. Visually, thematically, performance-wise. THE ZERO THEOREM may ultimately end up as "advanced studies" in the Gilliam syllabus, but even so, I'm glad for the two hours to once again spend inside the genius director's brain.

THE ZERO THEOREM takes place in a cluttered, colorful, surreal version of the future that is one part Brazil, one part Idiocracy. In this skewed future-world, garish ads follow you wherever you walk, everyone dresses like they worship at the alter of Lady Gaga, and, to add to the sensory overload, it's rare to see anyone walking sans screen held at eye level and earphones blocking out external noise (no wonder the ads have to be so in-your-face - otherwise, no one would ever notice them). One unique denizen of this world is Qohen Leth (the great Christoph Waltz) - a worker-bee who, when he's not at his job working for a number-crunching conglomerate - keeps to himself in the renovated, cavernous cathedral he calls home. The cathedral used to be home to a monastic order, and Qohen himself is monk-ish, in a way. He is bald, he keeps to himself, and he lives his life based on a strange sort of faith. Years ago, Qohen received a phone call in which a celestial voice promised to tell him the meaning of life. So excited was Qohen that he dropped the phone and accidentally hung up. Ever since, he's been waiting for that voice to call him back and give him his answer. Obsessed with the call-that-may-never-come, Qohen asks his Big Brother-like bosses to let him work from home, so that he might not miss that call. Though they think him insane, Management (embodied with enigmatic, good ol' boy charm by Matt Damon) grants Qohen his request, as they have a project for him to work on solo. Qohen's usual workday involves a strange routine of him in a circle of similar worker-bees, peddling a bike and plugging away at a never-ending geometric puzzle with an XBOX-like controller, working on an endless equation that will never be solved. Now, Qohen is to work on an even more intense version of this sort of puzzle - solving the Zero Theorem - the equation that will prove that all life is meaningless and doomed to end and disappear forever into the void. Zero must equal 100%. Everything equals nothing.

Once his work on the Zero Theorem begins, Qohen becomes even more obsessive and hermetic than he already is. However, given the importance of his work, Management sees fit to continually send him help to deal with his mental stress. Regularly-scheduled online therapy sessions with a tightly-wound psychiatrist only aggravate Qohen. More effective is the introduction of Bainsley into his life. The stunning Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) meets Qohen at a party (that he's forced to go to by his boss), and takes a liking to him. But Bainsley is - as is seemingly everything in this world - just a tool of Management, sent into Qohen's life tokeep him calm and focused. Even as Qohen's feelings for Bainsley begin to feel more real, it becomes increasingly apparent that she, like so much else, is not what she seems. Everything equals nothing. The same goes for Bob, the teenage son of Management - a whipcrack-smart programmer sent to help Qohen with the Zero Theorem. In return for Qohen's help, he promises to get him his phone call. But is that claim legitimate, or just a way to keep an insane man on a leash?

As you can probably gather, there's a lot of stuff in THE ZERO THEOREM about life, the universe, and everything. But where the movie perhaps falls a bit flat is that it never quite connects all of the dots in order to say something that seems sufficiently urgent and cohesive. There are a ton of fascinating ideas in the film about what it all means, but you also never feel like there's a singular thesis statement underlying it all. Maybe that's part of the point (everything equals nothing), but still ... Case in point, pretty sizable scenes are dedicated to showing Qohen and Bob bobbing and weaving as they solve their videogame-like puzzle in search of the elusive Zero Theorem. But what are they doing, exactly? What constitutes failure vs. success in the game? It's all sort of abstract and vague, but then why show us so much of it? Certainly, Gilliam intends to convey the tedium and pointlessness of the puzzle, but there isn't enough definition. The reasons why Management is so hellbent on solving the Zero Theorem aren't 100% convincing, and neither is Qohen's singular need to get that phone call. Unlike, say, Brazil, where Jonathan Pryce's character drives everything, here, the characters feel a bit more like props to inhabit this strange future. Bainsley is another example - she is a "hooker with a heart of gold" archetype, but there is a certain dimension to her character that seems to be missing. Like Qohen and others, she feels not-quite-fully-realized.

What does feel more fully realized is the world of the movie. Here is where Gilliam's artistic eye really shines. The movie looks amazing, and every scene, every location, is brimming with incredible detail, imagination, and eye-popping color. I don't know how Gilliam does it. But I do know that in a world where CGI and f/x so often look bland and cookie-cutter, seeing a master like Gilliam do sci-fi world-building of this order and magnitude is truly thrilling. I assume that Gilliam is working with a fraction of the budget of your typical sci-fi blockbuster. But how many other directors so painstakingly hand-craft every detail of their films to achieve this sort of artistry?

Gilliam's vision is also complimented by the talented actors in the film. Christoph Waltz is fantastic as Qohen. He crafts this unique character who is everything-phobic, reclusive, and on the brink of madness. Qohen refers to himself in the plural, "we" instead of "I," putting even more emphasis on his status as a drone, one small cog in a vast collective. Like I said, I do wish there was just a little more to Qohen's character and driving purpose, but man, Waltz makes him memorable nonetheless. Same goes for Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley. I wanted more from the character, but Thierry makes her incredibly memorable. Not just with her pin-up girl beauty, but with the way she - in conjunction with Gilliam's direction, evokes Old Hollywood glamor while still coming off as thoroughly post-modern. Lucas Hedges as Bob is perhaps the one weak spot - he's good, but he's a little too 2014-seeming, and not quite able to fully adapt his acting to Gilliam's surreal sci-fi tone.

The world of ZERO THEOREM is one that any film fan worth his or her salt needs to check out. Gilliam goes big here, and tries to weave together a profound satire about the ways in which non-reality passes for reality in our lives, thus rendering everything as pointless. Between the lines, there is some real food for thought about how, in an increasingly synthetic and virtual world, we doom ourselves to a void of our own making. That's the irony of Management's search for the Zero Theorem - what they seek to quantify is already apparent all around them. I suppose the fault here is that the film's profundity is mostly all in the little details - the great bits of satire and humor and world-building - but a lot less so in the driving narrative arc. Qohen's story is less interesting than that of the wonderfully weird world that surrounds him. But hey, like I said, give Gilliam credit for unleashing his imagination and giving us something so unique. I'll still take THE ZERO THEOREM over most movies any day of the week.

My Grade: B+

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