Terry Gilliam’s career as a film director is a case of serious ups and downs and full of misfortune. For one thing he’s made several attempts over a period of over two decades to make his own cinematic the story of vision of Don Quixote (and he’s still trying) but always winds up failing miserably at getting the project finished (they even made a documentary on one of those attempts). His battle for Brazil is now famous and he also fought for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which went way over budget and was dumped by the studio but has become a cult fave since. His only true successes (i.e. were produced without a hassle and became critical and box office hits when they came out) were Twelve Monkeys and The Fisher King, both of which were sort of “director for hire” gigs for him.
Things have been even worse for him this century so far as it started with the aforementioned failed attempt at doing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, was followed by a “director for hire” gig that flopped (The Brothers Grimm) and then he made two more personal films, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which got mixed reviews and were barely released. And the same fate is happening to his newest film The Zero Theorem, which premiered at festivals last autumn but has yet to open in the U.S. and is going straight-to-dvd in several markets (including Iceland, where this reviewer is from).
But The Zero Theorem may be Gilliam’s most personal project yet, or at least since Brazil. In it Christoph Waltz plays a computer programmer named Leth Cohen who is assigned to “The Zero Theorem” a project dedicated to crunching numbers to figure out the meaning of life (or lack thereof) but Cohen gradually starts losing his mind and has to deal with the higher powers.
The Zero Theorem is very much a Terry Gilliam movie. His movies have been all about escapism, people who are unsatisfied with their lives and seek ways to escape it, either through dreams or drugs (or seek a chance to escape it through time travel) but this time he’s made a film about a man who tries to not so much to escape reality as avoid it. He’s very happy to stay at home and play with his computer all day, every day, and doesn’t want to go outside. He doesn’t want to escape life so much as his life is an escape.
But as personal and original as The Zero Theorem is, it’s still not the comeback one was hoping for from Mr. Gilliam. Like all his other films this century The Zero Theorem is overall a disappointment and it seems like the man his simply lost some of his touch. He’s got the ideas and a personal vision but something seems to be limiting him.
Part of it may be budget restrictions. The Zero Theorem was obviously not made for nearly as much money as, say, the new Transformers movie, and it really tells. The special effects often feel cheap, the visuals are often drab (though still kinda cool) and most of it is set in one location with only a handful of actors (mostly just a couple at a time). It’s a bit monotonous at times and not quite the wild ride you’d expect from the mind that created Brazil and Time Bandits.
But it also just seems like he’s lost grasp of the zeitgeist, his bureuocratic satire in Brazil was very fitting in the 80s but it doesn’t seem to have advanced much since then and The Zero Theorem is partially a case of Gilliam repeating himself, with many echoes of Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and even Monty Python. It’s also a movie dealing with modern computers and technology and while it gets some things right others feel strangely dated, as if the script was written years ago and wasn’t updated well enough and also as if it’s been made by someone who’s doesn’t entirely grasp how computers and the internet work. Yes, this is yet another movie that deals with computer programming by showing it as colorful graphics on a screen.
Computer programming has never been very cinematic and most attempts in movies to make it “cinematic” have turned out rather laughable (Hackers anyone?) and while there’s some kernel of a clever idea here it still comes off as rather silly. Leth’s project consists of literally crunching (or crushing) numbers by playing them as a game of sorts. It’s literally work as play (no work and all play may make Jack a dull boy, but if work and play end up being the same thing? Then Jack really loses it!). But it’s also never very clear what exactly he’s doing. We do get a simple explanation in the end, but it’s not entirely satisfying and there’s still too much of the film spent on a guy playing with his computer.
This film is still far from being bad. Gilliam is incapable of making a movie that’s not at least interesting and there’s lots of good stuff here. The cast does well, Christoph Waltz is wonderful as always in the lead and pulls off the “no eyebrows” look very well and David Thewlis is funny as his boss (reminding a bit of Michael Palin’s character in Brazil). And even with cheap fx, a drab visual style and what not there’s still some very nice visuals and cool design scattered around the movie. There’s also a lot of very funny bits in the fringes (“Welcome to the church of intelligent design”). But as a whole, there’s something lacking in The Zero Theorem.
The Good: All the lovely little bits of business, like the party scene where all the guests are dancing while holding tablet computers and pretending to smoke cigarettes.
The Bad: This is yet another movie with a failed attempt at making computer programming “cinematic” that just comes off as dull and confusing.
The Weird: An almost unrecognizable Matt Damon as the head of the company Leth is working for, looking a bit like a skinny Phillip Seymour Hoffman.