Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges
Running time: 106 mins
Release date: March 14th
Director Terry Gilliam completes a 29-year cycle with the release of Zero Theorem, presented as the final instalment of a dsytopian trilogy which began with 1985’s Brazil and continued with 1996’s Twelve Monkeys. Although entertaining and visually captivating, there is a disconnect between Gilliam’s future and the one which we are hurtling towards that lessens the impact of its satire.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a reclusive computer programmer worn down by the drudgery of his own existence, which is only made bearable by his expectation of someday receiving a mysterious phone call that he believes will add meaning to his life. He is allowed to work from home – a disused chapel – by his corporate bosses who assign him the special task of tackling a complex theorem. There is some respite for Qohen when he meets Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and begins an online relationship with the blonde bombshell. But nothing is straightforward with Bainsley, and the unrelenting pressure of Qohen’s professional life soon pushes him to edge of sanity.
Gilliam presents a curious vision of this future society which goes some way towards accounting for Qohen’s condition. Life is fast-paced, meaningful engagement is at a minimum, employer demands are unforgiving and technology is both ubiquitous and invasive. The buildings, signage, advertisements and clothes people wear are all colourful – but the individual’s sullen demeanour and aversion to face-to-face-interaction hint at a darker core.
Waltz thrives in a difficult role. Qohen does not say very much so the Austrian has to communicate a sense of his character’s spiritual malaise through the use of his body and facial expressions. He manages to pull it off, and his co-star Thierry is equally impressive in the role of Bainsley. The French actress plays a femme fatale and succeeds in making her character intriguing while conveying seductiveness and unattainability at the same time. She moves through the stages of familiarity with Qohen well, ensuring the credibility of her character in the process.
Gilliam’s sets are visually arresting. There is a juxtaposition of the industrial with the technological – the computers are highly-advanced but big and clunky while some of them require the user to pedal furiously in order to perform tasks. Qohen is seen using an old-school telephone and then goes to a party where revellers dance to music with what looks like modern tablets in their hands.
It all makes for a quirky mix, but it detracts from the overall message of the film at the same time. Gilliam has admitted that one of the first things they did when starting work on the film was designing sets, and that the future has since caught up with them and left them behind. Zero Theorem is then transformed, he maintains, from a future film to a retro film.
The end result is an enjoyable spectacle which is wacky rather than weighty. The negative impact of the individual’s tendency to be constantly connected to the technological grid and engaging in meaningless communication is a recurring theme in Zero Theorem, but the world on the screen seems too fantastical to bear any relation to our own. It is in stark contrast to Spike Jonze’s Her, which deals with similar themes but presents an entirely different vision. Gilliam’s world looks so quaint that the big questions he tackles seem inconsequential.