Monday, August 25, 2014

Review: The Zero Theorem

by Adam Riske
I should probably just face facts and admit I’m not a Terry Gilliam fan.

Despite them often not working for me, I keep giving Terry Gilliam movies a chance. I don’t know why. His latest, The Zero Theorem, is no exception. On first glance, the director’s work seems intriguing and eclectic but I am consistently disappointed when I watch this man’s movies. It’s as if someone gave me a bouquet of red roses and I thought “Oh, how lovely,” but when I stuck my face into them I get a waft of B.O.
I didn’t hate The Zero Theorem, but something bugs me about it on a fundamental level. It’s much more wrong than right. If it weren’t for the cast, it would feel similar to a stale movie that played a film festival in the fall of 1995 (the second and third acts lean heavily on virtual reality). Based on the poster design (which is a bit fantastic), I was hoping I was going to see a movie aiming to be daring and exciting -- something resembling The Fountain, a movie that truly goes for it. I had reserved expectations going in, but wanted to enjoy or appreciate The Zero Theorem. Instead, it’s the same old Gilliam nonsense full of canted angles, a bleak and suffocating worldview and busy production design.

The plot in brief: A worker bee (Christoph Waltz) whose goal is to learn the reason for human existence (most especially his own) faces off against Management (Matt Damon in an extended cameo), whose aims are much less altruistic and more driven to the bottom line. Also factoring into the plot are the Waltz character’s supervisor (David Thewlis) and a lovely young woman (an appealing Melanie Thierry), who may or may not be employed by the malevolent Management themselves.
Little of the movie works. For much of the runtime we’re primarily stuck with the Waltz character, Qohen Leth (yes, that’s his name), who is such a wet noodle and a sad sack that it rubs off on the entire production. It is not a fault of the performer for being so adrift, but rather the character conceptually. I’m not much of a fan of Brazil (because it’s too good at being bleak, so much that I hate the movie a little bit), but at least Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry gave you SOME rooting interest, which Qohen Leth does not. I did not care about this man’s plight. I just wanted to get away from this quirky mope. Does the character have an arc at least? Yes, but it’s revealed far too late in the proceedings for me to actually care. That’s the movie in a nutshell. I sat there just wanting it to be over.

As I was not invested in the story or the characters, it gave me plenty of time to focus on other things, such as how bored I was with a lazy director who seems hopelessly out of new tricks. The Zero Theorem is not original or a movie with anything worthwhile to say, which, sadly I couldn’t figure out until the final reel (in other words, I felt I wasted my time when I learned the movie’s endgame). Fans of Brazil might enjoy The Zero Theorem because it is immensely reminiscent of his 1985 success – a dystopian world viewed through a weary protagonist, while under the thumb of fascist rule, whose only hope is everlasting love from a young woman who happens to be blonde. If you gravitate to that particular tune, you might truly appreciate The Zero Theorem. For me, it’s just a song that I don’t enjoy. One man’s fish-eyed lens is another man’s fish heads in a garbage can.
The Zero Theorem is so frustrating for me because I think Terry Gilliam is a man whose work is full of deep thematic richness, but he can’t make it come across in any other way than off-putting and muddled. He cares deeply about life and issues but has no sympathy for his characters or his audience. I have enjoyed some of his movies (for example 12 Monkeys, which follows a more traditional narrative structure, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which plays like the best Tim Burton movie of the 2000s), but more often than not I feel that Gilliam is not thinking about his audience at all. If he would just hold back a little and let a movie breathe, I would be able to digest his stories of fear, love, dreams, an individual’s potential to alter his own destiny. Instead, he’s too enamored with his “fuck you” individuality and rummage/flea market aesthetic to care about story and the message first. It’s Gilliam’s party and he knows he’ll have a great time. He doesn’t care if you’ll get anything out of it or even if you’ll want to stay for more than a few minutes.
By the end of The Zero Theorem, I felt as if I was in the hands of a master who unfortunately is an expert at jerking around an audience for an unsatisfactory resolution. The Zero Theorem is not the worst movie of the year by a long shot, but it might be one of my least favorite.


  1. Yeah, Gilliam is a director who I like more in theory than in actuality. I wanted to see this just for an opportunity to see Waltz do his thang but I'll take my time getting to it based on your review. I like your rose analogy - especially because it can work both ways - sometimes it's like someone is shoving your face in their armpit and it ends up smelling like roses!

  2. I need to be the voice of positivity here. Gilliam worked with the Pythons and is partly responsible for their titanic influence on modern comedy. He is credited with directing Holy Grail which is a Hall of Fame film. He is a genre unto himself, a bizarre form of fantasy film-making that has little to do with Tolkien dwarves and elves that has taken over the biz lately.

    Brazil is a classic film, a dystopic future that's unlike other dystopic futures and an influential film.
    Fisher King is a brilliant cinematic experience, funny, sad, heart-breaking and enervating. Well-acted and superbly written.
    12 Monkeys is a terrific time-travel film with great performances.
    Baron Munchausen is a superbly strange but funny film and is unpredictable as it constantly turns in upon itself.
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a personal favorite of mine, a brilliant interpretation of an un-filmable book that pays respect to the gonzo writings of Thompson but also makes a gonzo film out of them.

    I have not seen Tideland as it played for about 12 minutes in the theaters and is really hard to find on video as I imagine Zero theorem will be equally difficult to find.

    And yes, Brothers Grimm sucked. But basically Gilliam can't be dismissed as he is an influential, intelligent, inimitable director and stylist.

    1. Glad you shared your opinion Channing. Gilliam is a talented filmmaker but he frustrates me to no end.

  3. Damn!

    I was kinda looking forward to this. Not because of the Waltz character but because of Thewlis. I loved David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's film Naked. Not so much the film but Thewlis as a character was fantastic.

    I saw a hint of the Thewlis magic in the trailer and then was gutted to see Christoph Waltz had the main part. I would rather see this film with Thewlis as the main protagonist.

    I'm gonna see it but im not excited about it

    1. I have a review coming soon of a new movie I loved. It evens out the week. Sorry to be a buzzkill on The Zero Theorem. If you're more of a Terry Gilliam fan than I am, you might like it. Thewlis has a decent sizer part in the movie.

    2. A "decent sizer" - I'm not sure I want to see that. :P

  4. Its a Waltz and Thewlis measuring competition. Who's got the biggest? Column inches this week I mean on Dvd digest ;)

    1. "Column inches"? #dickjokes

    2. Not to change the subject but holy shit is there NOTHING coming out in the next few weeks. I mean NOTHING.

    3. Yeah, I was checking out the release schedule just yesterday and the only thing I have any interest in is Tusk in like late September. Works out good for me - we're moving on October 1 so it's going to be a hectic month. Is it weird that I went with Oct 1 rather than Nov 1 because I wanted to be settled for Scary Movie Month?

    4. Not at all. That's just good planning. There's a Halloween City store across the street from where I work and I went in there to buy merch for my home theater set up. They were like "we're not open yet" and I was all "but it's August!"

      I can't watch horror movies in October without fake webbing and twinkle lights, dammit.

  5. I enjoy Gilliam to a degree. "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is my favorite of his movies ... probably one of my favorite movies, period. (Personal anecdote: I was working in a movie theater when "F&L" was released. Nobody went to see it. I think the biggest audience we had was pushing ten. I, however, dropped in during every break I had. I couldn't get enough of it. Still can't.) I like "Baron" and "12 Monkeys," but don't care for "Brazil" in the least. I haven't seen "Imaginarium" or the movie with the little girl (I'm too lazy to look it up), so I can't comment on those.

    The trailers for this movie didn't really move me, so I probably won't watch it until it pops up on Netflix. Either then, I may still give it a pass.

    Thanks for another great review, Adam.

  6. Update

    God what can I say. Thewlis may as well of phoned in his part. He had nothing to do. And that wig was very distracting. It did not get into any of the deep thoughts or philosophy of the theorum. I wanted brain fodder and went away starving. It felt more like a boring cyber love story. The worst thing I can say is I was Bored. I had high hopes and yes. Its surreal. Yes its colourfull. Yes it's a Gilliam World. But thats not enough!

  7. Ive now sat on it all day. Ive thought more about the film. Did I overreact?

    No. I can't think of one single moment. One scene. One line of dialogue. Just one anything that will make me want to revisit this film. It left me cold and bored. Sorry ...