By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.
In the opening shots of Terry Gilliam’s cheeky sci-fi dystopia The Zero Theorem, a bald, naked, future man who lives in an abandoned church studies the churning menace of a black hole on a large computer screen, all the while waiting for a phone call that will unlock the secrets of the universe. Then, Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin really start to pile on the ponderous symbolism.
Over the last two decades, Gilliam has made mid-career crisis diversions into Southern gothic (Tideland), mainstream CGI fantasy (The Brothers Grimm), and opera (a production of Faust), with a string of projects in various states of completion left in his wake (including The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, stitched together after star Heath Ledger’s death).Therefore, old-school fans will be happy to hear that The Zero Theorem is Gilliam’s Gilliam-est movie in decades. He has even proclaimed it to be the final chapter in an unofficial trilogy of bleak futures that started with Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
I generally hold Gilliam’s work in lower esteem than the cinephile status quo, however, so a return to his form of fish-eyed frenzy is not necessarily a selling point (I ranked and rated all of his films HERE). The Zero Theorem is true-to-form overstuffed and exhausting (between this film and Tusk, I’ve had my fill of jokey props and signage for a while), and as is the case with a lot of Gilliam’s work, soul and meaning tend to get lost in the swarm of ideas.
Christoph Waltz plays the bald, naked man, a socially awkward computer slave named Qohen who lives in a corporate totalitarian state. Like almost everyone else in this world, Qohen works for an omnipresent corporation called ManCom, and spends most of his day “crunching numbers” by performing seemingly nonsensical and dehumanizing tasks. After a chance encounter with Management (Matt Damon, literally blending into the scenery), Qohen is put to work on a burnout task to find the zero theorem, a reorganization of information that could prove the futility of existence.
Qohen slaves away at the project for months, with the promise of a return call in re: the meaning of life serving as carrot to his cart horse. When Qohen starts to burn out, Management pushes his buttons, sending him a confidant (David Thewlis, stealing scenes right and left), a young mentee (Lucas Hedges), an AI shrink (Tilda Swinton, now appearing in everything), and a virtual reality prostitute (Melanie Thierry) in order to keep him on the job.
Amidst the jam-packed, pop-art ghetto set design (including some overly familiar graffiti that inspired a lawsuit by a trio of street artists), wacky costuming, and blather about black holes, clones, and “the neural net” lies a lot of half-formed existential riddles. Is the search for meaning meaningless? Does blind faith lead to salvation or slavery? Can free will exist in a world of constant surveillance and evaluation? But it’s all just a misty, sleight-of-hand prelude for Gilliam to devolve into his usual incoherent chaos in the home stretch. There is the impression that, after a lot of stops and stumbles, Gilliam made exactly the film he wanted to make here, which is a mixed blessing at best.