A neurotic self-pluralising computer analyst desperately seeks the reason for human existence in a self-collapsing future populated by talking heads and giant lycra onesies. Well, it could only come from Terry Gilliam. The king of kookiness returns to the genre he once defined with a fresh new take on the world we have to look forward to in The Zero Theorem. Ready your thinking caps, this one’s a head-scratcher.
The Zero Theorem follows Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), the pre-mentioned lunatic tasked with uncovering the universe’s greatest question, as set by none other than the all-encompassing mega-corporation known simply as Management. On his quest for total understanding, Leth finds plenty of distraction from mysterious super-hottie Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), bumbling workmate Joby (David Thewlis) and a computerised psychiatrist with anger issues, brought to life with all the madness of Tilda Swinton. A barely recognisable Matt Damon even pops up momentarily as the silver-haired Management head-honcho doling out a fair amount of sass with his orders. It is no doubt guessable by this point, The Zero Theorem is a little on the strange side.
Behind the layers of dashing intrigue and crazy designs, Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin have built a world that’s worth the price of admission alone. Every set and prop has a loud new design from their contemporary counter-parts. Filled with splashes of colour and childish constructions; it’s a far cry from the earthiness of Her but the world of The Zero Theorem is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Like an industrialised Whoville from a far more cynical Dr Seuss book, the city speaks a thousand voices and echoes a thousand bright colours. It’s loud, mad and packed with clever nods (the church of “Batman the Redeemer” is worth a shout), but sadly forced into the confines of only a handful of scenes. With this level of detail simply forming the background of Gilliam’s tale, you know there’s going to be a lot going on, but it still would’ve been nice to be able to delve a little deeper into this wacky new world that’s only really hinted at.
Instead, the key focus of Theorem is (understandably) Waltz’s Qohen, a bizarre paranoid yuppie that somehow comes across as instantly adorable. Waltz’s completely hairless performance is an embracive one, delving deep into Qohen’s tormented psyche and creating a lead that carries the film’s ambiguous plotting with ease. Bearing in mind that the majority of the narrative is spent hiding within the confines of a collapsing church, this is no easy feat; in doing so Waltz cements his position as one of the industry’s top performers.
Compared to Waltz’s tour-de-force, the supporting cast all seem a little confused, almost as if Gilliam has only shared his secrets with his leading man and left everyone else to their own devices. David Thewlis’ Joby is a muddled creation, sparking the odd rise of humour but really little else, and Melanie Thierry’s central love interest is equally as clueless, popping up occasionally to inject the sex factor but otherwise barely noticing the plot at hand. This is Theorem’s first major problem: Gilliam has crafted a one-man play with multiple characters. Waltz’s lead carries the plot (it’s a personal journey after all), leaving the supporting band of misfits really very little to do other than stand around and cause problems.
The second big issue with Theorem actually ends up lying within its biggest strength: the film’s sheer lunacy. With such a distinct visual style and so many bizarre Gilliameque ideas popping up all over the place, it actually ends up becoming really rather difficult to give the plot the attention it needs to make any sort of sense.
Theorem deals with some huge philosophical ideas relating to the nature of human existence that can make your brain hurt when brought up alone, outside of a narrative. Mould these ideas within a separate story, along with a series of distracting visual after-thoughts and the result is a very long and overbearing headache. It’s the cinematic equivalent of multi-tasking: reading a book whilst admiring a painting. It simply can’t be done. Sadly no one suggested to Gilliam to simply follow one route or the other: by mixing complex visuals with complex ideas, it’s ultimately impossible to appreciate both to their full potential.
It may be far from the best (and not even a little bit sane), but The Zero Theorem demands your attention; it remains a fascinatingly unique, head-scratching maze of a film. As lively and indulgent as it is flawed and twisted; Terry Gilliam has most definitely returned to sci-fi with his A game. It’s just a little surprising we forgot how mad he really is.
The Zero Theorem (2013), directed by Terry Gilliam, is released in the UK by Sony Pictures, Certificate 15.