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Review: The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero Theorem (2014)

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Premise: Set in the future, a computer programmer (Christoph Waltz) employed by a major corporation is assigned to work on a special project but is distracted by a woman and a teenager.

What Works: The Zero Theorem is the latest feature from Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker with a distinct cinematic style. His movies are frequently fantastic satires and are typically about characters who are overwhelmed by bureaucracy and society and have trouble differentiating between reality and illusion as seen in titles like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Of Gilliam’s work, The Zero Theorem most closely recalls Brazil. In fact, this film has so much in common with the 1985 picture that it plays a lot like an updated version of that story and in some ways the new film improves upon its predecessor. The Zero Theorem has a similar style to Brazil and deals with many of the same themes. In this picture, Christoph Waltz plays a computer programmer who slaves away at his job while waiting for a phone call that he believes will reveal the meaning of his life. The company management takes notice of his dedication and gives him a special project, which he endlessly dedicates himself to completing. The story world of The Zero Theorem is a smart parody of contemporary life and it captures two apparently contradictory behaviors: the yearning to transcend the everyday and the urge to stay withing the bounds of comfortable familiarity. The way the filmmakers dramatize this conflict is very effective, especially in the first and last portions of the movie. As is usual in a Terry Gilliam picture, the production design of The Zero Theorem has a wacky and cartoonish look. Gilliam is a visual stylist and this movie has a great look with sets, costumes, and other visuals that are visually stunning while also suggesting an extreme version of contemporary reality. 

What Doesn’t: Audiences whose expectations of science fiction movies are shaped more by Transformers than by 2001: A Space Odyssey are probably going to find The Zero Theorem to be an impenetrable movie. That isn’t a fault of the filmmakers but this picture will appeal to narrower tastes than the average Hollywood blockbuster. The Zero Theorem recalls Brazil in its style and themes but also in its shortcomings. Like Terry Gilliam’s 1985 picture, The Zero Theorem comes across a little self-indulgent and alienating. The movie never quite invites the viewer into its story space; the film is at some level a black comedy and comedy always keeps its characters at a distance. But after the initial buzz of the opening, the energy of the movie subsides and the filmmakers keep the audience at a distance. Like Brazil, the story and characters of The Zero Theorem get lost amid the art direction and the film’s cerebral themes. The way that humanity and narrative logic are overwhelmed by technology and bureaucracy may be part of the point but that makes it difficult to stay engaged with the picture. The characters do not invite empathy, partly because the filmmakers are more enthralled with the philosophical concepts than they are with the dramatic aspects of the story. The Zero Theorem is zany and unpredictable, and in that way it’s a relief in an increasingly homogenous motion picture marketplace, but the film sags in the middle. Exactly what Christoph Walz’s character has been assigned to accomplish is never quite clear and much of the movie involves scenes of Waltz running computer models that look like video games. Exactly what is at stake is not made palatable, which undermines the film’s intended defense of humanity against a dehumanizing establishment.

Bottom Line: Like most of Terry Gilliam’s work, The Zero Theorem is going to appeal to a very specific group of viewers. General audiences are probably going to be baffled by it but those who get Gilliam’s work are in for a treat. It’s a flawed picture but it’s also an ambitious and smart sendup of contemporary life.

Episode: #510 (September 28, 2014)