I hesitate to make easy comparisons between Terry Gilliam’s latest, Zero Theorem, and 1985’s Brazil, but luckily the link has been made for me – Gilliam himself has referred to the film as the last of his dystopian trilogy, the middle being 95’s Twelve Monkeys. I must confess that while I have seen Brazil, it has been a while and I do no remember (or, perhaps, understand) the film to the extent I should. Gilliam’s films have always hinted towards greater meaning, without them quite penetrating to me. I cannot decide whether that is because they actually lack anything to penetrate beyond what is on the screen. Granted, there is always plenty happening on the screen in his films, but at face value, both Brazil and Zero Theorem are not overly complex as critiques/satires of modern society. There is little ground broken on that front that was not already covered in the countless other dystopic fiction. What remains, then, is to ask what, if anything, the films have to say aside from that.
Qohen Leth (whose name is commonly mispronounced or misremembered by other characters, perhaps hinting at lack or loss of identity), played by Christoph Waltz, certainly hints at deeper meanings. Having felt earnestly a lack of it for most of his life, working obsessively and compulsively in a job he does not enjoy, Qohen awaits a phone call that would change everything. The film does not hide that this is not a rational expectation, and even if it were he takes it to a sociopathic extreme. He avoids any distractions that would prevent him receiving the call, such as interpersonal relationships or going outside. Given a new assignment by Management, amusingly portrayed by Matt Damon, he shuts himself away to prove the eponymous Zero Theorem, the precise meaning of which I will not spoil to any who would choose to find out for themselves. Suffice it to say that the question of whether or not there is a greater purpose behind things is very much engaged front and center in the film.
To expect a clear answer either way would, of course, be silly. The long-standing mystery over what, precisely, Qohen is expecting or trying to achieve, however, also serves to conceal drama in the picture. There is certainly nothing resembling urgency in the picture, even if certain characters do possess it on the surface. Terry Gilliam attempts to satirize numerous aspects of modern society, and is spot on in taking certain aspects to their logical extremes – such as advertisements amusingly following passers-by. For the first time in the aforementioned dystopian trilogy, internet is a major player in our lives. While publicly condemning its influence while speaking about the film, the film itself does not make clear why a connection made over the internet is less valid than any other. It seems that Gilliam is so convinced it is less than genuine, and expects us all to agree to such an extent, that he does not even try to illustrate why he feels that way. The film seems to engage in a distraction towards the center of the film, in the form of an alluring seductress, Bainsley, played by Mélanie Thierry, with whom Qohen becomes increasingly infatuated. If the film is from his perspective, this can be forgiven, as she herself is something of a distraction (perhaps even a purposeful one) in his life. That being said, their relationship does seem to illustrate some lack of focus. If the filmmaker was striving for her to represent some greater sense of meaning, this was not made adequately clear.
Gilliam’s strength has, of course, always been visual, and Zero Theorem is no exception. There is always plenty happening on screen, in garish color and flamboyant design. The charm of the picture is it’s absolute refusal for any affectation of being cool. It is, in fact, the opposite of cool, which normally expresses itself in cool detachment, coyness or attempts at subtlety. Even the most garish action movies accomplish “coolness” by, in fact, turning some of the color and detail down, while accentuating certain things for effect. Gilliam’s world is by far the busiest we would ever see. Color is everywhere, sets overflowing with hand-crafted detail. These elements are, as always, enjoyable due to their complete lack of affectation. The artist puts on the screen precisely what he finds exciting. And while the film ultimately adds up to very little other than the question of whether or not there is any meaning to life, it is certainly never boring.