(UK-based Rohan Morbey blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, and sometimes gets a look at movies well in advance of their US release. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review of Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, which appears set only for a modest US release. Do follow Rohan over on Twitter!)
Terry Gilliam’s filmmaking career has produced a body of work of varied result, from the highs of a modern classic like Brazil to total misfires such as The Brothers Grimm and Tideland. But his a unique sense for storytelling and eye for visuals unlike anyone else are always guaranteed. As such, The Zero Theorem is everything we could want from a Terry Gilliam film and much more; it’s one the year’s best films.
The story is a familiar one but has that likable Gilliam lead (previously played by Jonathan Pryce, John Neville, and Robin Williams) which allows the audience to go along with the madness. Here that lead is the always great Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer hacker who is given the impossible task of proving that life has no purpose or meaning, or the ‘Zero Theorem’ as it’s known. Every day Qohen (who has to spell his name to everyone he meets) waits for a phone call to explain to him the meaning of life, but the call never comes, so he continues to tackle the Zero Theorem in a classic Gilliam visual; a large controller hooked up to a flat screen with ridiculous buttons and switches, which all produce fluorescent liquid data in bottles. The bottles are handed over to an arm behind a counter only for an empty bottle to be put in its place and off Qohen goes again. You have to see it to appreciate the genius vision Gilliam has created, my words do it little justice.
As the final part of his dystopian trilogy, following on from Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam takes on the world of social media and the ever-expanding desire for everyone to be connected all the time. ‘The Management’ which Qohen works for has cameras in every room and the technology and jobs seem without point or to exist only to besiege the users. When we’re in the real world (for some takes place in virtual reality) the film never allows Qohen or the audience a moment’s rest; coupled with Gilliam’s trademark off kilter angles and ability to make everything look so grand whilst man looks so small, it makes for an experience like no other you’ll see this year. The film, I think, echoes the director’s feelings towards modern life; "I’ve never been an actual Luddite," he once said "I don’t hate technology. I just hate the religion around it." No coincidence that Qohen lives in an old church...
I won’t pretend that Gilliam is out of his cinematic ‘comfort zone’ here, but as the master of sci-fi fantasy there’s no place I’d rather see him working. The Zero Theorem is hands down the most visually appealing film of 2014 (as of late July at least) and in the hands of any other director the film simply would not have the same charm; and ‘charm’ is the key word here for the film has an old fashioned feel to it, the type of movie which made Gilliam a recognizable talent and stand out from the rest. Everything in the film feels tangible, from Qohen’s home in the church to the manic streets of London which Qohen has to navigate each day, to the madcap workplace he hates so much. It’s only when we enter a virtual world that Gilliam’s style changes and the film becomes much calmer, but these scenes also hold a visual beauty all of their own.
Visual beauty is what The Zero Theorem has with acres to spare, and it s a true joy to watch and marks one of Gilliam’s very best films. Personally it’s my third favourite after Brazil and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas and I think that speaks volumes about a director who has clearly not sold out or taken the easy money and always offers audiences something new. The film was overlooked in the UK and barely promoted, and it’s being released only on VOD in Canada; a very sad state of affairs for one of the best sci-fi movies you could hope to see; and if my review encourages just one person to see the film, then all of Qohen’s hard work wasn’t all in vain.