Terry Gilliam Grabs Life by the Lapels and Demands Answers in The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem is the first screenplay from UCF writing professor Pat Rushin. It was in the running for Project Greenlight, and spent a decade shuffling around a production company and being rewritten, and each of the main roles has been cast multiple times—all of which removes it a bit from the more personal, auteurist Gilliam ventures. Having said all that, this is still a Terry Gilliam film, and we should all cherish it as we would a starving, bedraggled unicorn that stumbled up onto our porch one morning, looking for ambrosia.

If you like Gilliam even a little bit you should run out to see this movie if it’s playing anywhere near you—there are astonishing visuals, actors gleefully doing things they’d never get to do with any other director, giant thinky-thoughts, and lots of conversations about the meaning of life, or lack thereof, or irrelevance of the question. If you want more details click through, and if you wants some spoilery discussion of the meaning of the film—or lack thereof, or irrelevance of the question—there will be that below a spoiler line.

So I should start with a pair of notes:

Note 1: I love Terry Gilliam. I love him I love him I love him. I went through a pretty bad time when I was aimless and debating about what I wanted to do with my life, and reading Gilliam on Gilliam, a series of in-depth interviews about his career, helped me figure out a direction for my life. The extent to which he is cynical about life, optimistic about art, and no-bullshit about hypocrisy, bureaucracy, the making of comedy has been personally helpful to me, and artistically inspiring to many people.

Note 2: I like weird Gilliam movies. My favorite film of his (one of my favorites of all time) is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and its attempt to hack into America’s chest to find out of there’s still a heart in there. My other favorite, Tideland, is the most accurate depiction of girlhood that I’ve ever seen on film.

I’m saying all of this in prelude, because I loved pieces of The Zero Theorem, but I’m not sure it comes together as a film. I would still say that if you like Gilliam, or Christoph Waltz, or intelligent SFF, you should absolutely go see it in the theater or download it, and pay cash money for it, because I’d love for it to be at least modestly successful in America. However, this isn’t the film that will sweep you away into a full Gilliam world, and if you’re looking to convert anyone to the Church of Gilliam the Redeemer, this is not the place to start. It feels a little thin.

The Zero Theorem, starring Christoph Waltz, directed by Terry Gilliam

Spot the Gilliam protagonist! (Hint: he's the one shrouded in black…)

So, basic non-spoilery plot. Qohen Leth just wants to be left alone to wait for a phone call that, he believes, will give his life meaning. He’s haunted by dreams of a terrifying wormhole—but part of him wants to dive in. His boss, Management, gives him a sweet work-at-home deal where he tries to solve a giant math problem, the titular Zero Theorem, nicknamed “ZipT” by most of the characters. If Qohen can prove that “0 = 100%,” it will in turn prove that life is meaningless. (Management has a reason for wanting to prove this.) In as much as the film has a structure, it’s Qohen’s quest to make the math work. Along the way, he befriends a mysterious woman named Bainsley and a teen super-hacker named Bob, who either try to help him with the problem, or interrogate him about why he wants to solve it. Many conversations about life’s purpose ensue, against a colorful, noisy, dystopian-ish backdrop.

No one calls Qohen by his name. It becomes a running gag that he corrects people on the pronunciation while spelling it, but only one character uses it correctly. Qohen, aside from looking cool, is also a derivation from Qohelethin the Book of Ecclesiastes, which means “Gatherer” and is often translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher.” Leth can also be a reference to Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness that wipes the minds of the newly deceased as they cross into Hades.

So, you know, just a name.

There are many great things in this film. First of all, lets just announce the obvious, and say that Christoph Waltz is fucking fantastic. If I didn’t already love him he would have become one of my favorite actors ever about 5 minutes into this movie.

Tilda Swinton recycles her Snowpiercer teeth to appear as Dr. Shrink-Rom, a virtual psychiatrist. She’s fucking awesome. Melanie Thierry is funny and bright as Bainsley, and Lucas Hedges, who plays Bob, really digs into his character and brings us a warm breathing person in what could have easily been a caricature. The future world that’s been created here is vibrant, lived-in, not really a dystopia so much as a hyper-commercialized world. There are parks, children celebrating Halloween, days off, vacations. This isn’t Brazil. The bureaucrat who makes Qohen’s life difficult is actually a nice, sympathetic man who loves a good party.

Qohen lives in a rotting church, which he bought at a discount because the previous tenants, an order of nuns, wouldn’t even break their vow of silence to yell “Fire!” He keeps the front doors chained so it looks abandoned, so no one will bother him. Is God watching Qohen? Are the stained glass saints keeping an eye on him? Or is it only the ubiquitous Management, recording every moment of everyone’s lives, seemingly just for the sake of recording. There is no violence, no horrible inevitable stand-off with Orwellian powers, no Red Knights or terrorists. Just cameras and advertisements.

Now, the less good… we’ll start with Joby’s party. We’re supposed to be about 30 years in the future? But in the big party scene, the kids are all dancing while staring into iPhones and iPads. Some have large colorful headphones, while others look like they’ve stepped out of a mid-2000’s iPod ad.

So when is this supposed to be, exactly? We have VR suits that work, we have immersive ads that hover on walls, we have post-JudeoChristoLam religions, but everyone’s still using the same tech that I have right now? Are these kids who are reacting against a generation of Google-glassed parents? Are the iPads retro? Or is this simply a failure of imagination to take us a step or two beyond where we are now? I hope it’s the former—it would be amazing if the kids of the future have stepped back to use tech we have now, having decided that implants were just too invasive.

Gilliam only gives us one female character in The Zero Theorem and she’s disappointingly one-dimensional. Bainsley is mostly there to either distract Qohen with sex, or inspire him, also with sex. Which is frustrating, because she has a great introduction, and seems so sharp and spiky at first, that I hoped their relationship would elevate the movie. Instead, the real relationship in the film is between Qohen and Bob.

The other problem is bigger. ZT has been talked about as a struggle between characters who are searching for an objective, external meaning of life, and those who want to prove that life has no meaning. But only a couple of the characters seem to grasp ZipT’s real purpose. Qohen only really has to struggle with these people a bit at the end, and his own search for meaning remains so internal and abstract that it never manages to become the full emotional experience of The Fisher King, or the more cerebral meditations like Brazil and the best moments of Parnassus.

WARNING: HEAVY, SPOILERY, POST-VIEWING TYPE DISCUSSION ENSUES BELOW.

This very passivity shows how Gilliam has changed as a filmmaker. The big twist in Brazil isn’t even the moment when Michael Palin removes all of his masks and reveals himself to be an absolutely evil man, it’s the moment when he hisses furiously that Sam has made them all look bad. Here that character is recreated in the sad character of Joby, Qohen’s supervisor. He never gets Qohen’s name right, but he seems to genuinely want to be friends. He hosts a party because he loves having people around, but feels essentially alone. At the end, when he yells at Qohen about how badly he’s screwed up, he’s sobbing. He’s not a torturer, he’s not secretly evil, he’s just sad and tired. He feels betrayed.

It’s such a telling difference in Gilliam’s films. On the one hand, Management is using Qohen to an end. On the other, they’ve kept him well informed about the project, they’re meeting his request to work at home, and they send him a ton of support. Management isn’t evil, either, particularly, but he does want to make a profit. The femme fatale turns out to be a mediocre cam girl, and when she runs away at the end you learn that she can fit all of her belongings into a van. No one’s trying to stop her, there’s no sense that Management has threatened her, she’s just leaving because she’s sad and scared and wants a new life. Bob is a super hacker, and a compelling character, but he probably dies a few days after the end of the film, taken out by flu or pneumonia or whatever the illness was. Qohen doesn’t find a way to get to Bob and rescue him, he doesn’t run away with Bainsley, he doesn’t really stand up to management. After all his talk of searching for meaning, he isn’t searching, he’s waiting to have meaning handed to him. When he dives into the void, he sort of shrugs, steps backwards into it, and wakes on the beach alone. He seems content, but it isn’t the open-ended “is he mad, or is he happy, or are they one and the same?” ending that Brazil gave us, it just feels like he’s tired, and is giving up.

Is Gilliam himself giving up? Is that even a relevant question? For years I’ve thought of him as “one of us, one of us.” I talked about my love for The Fisher King in our Robin Williams tribute. Seeing Brazil for the first time (butchered, on broadcast television, at something like 3:00 in the morning) was an anti-lobotomy: I felt like the ideas were working their way into my brain and rewriting some neural pathways. I cried when I watched Lost in La Mancha. I even liked large portions of the The Brothers Grimm.

In The Zero Theorem, Gilliam gives us math that doesn’t really work, a distant authority figure who is unfight-able in his apathy, a society that seems to function perfectly well despite its cacophony, and a vague hero without a quest. He gives us a cardboard female who has no internal life or motivation, thus who never hit anyone, and a supergenius hacker who seemingly dies, offscreen, from the flu.

Time Bandits ends on a horrifyingly sick joke, and you either get it or you don’t. Munchhausen rallies for one more adventure. The Grail of The Fisher King bestows healing on Parry (and Jack) that is only slightly more metaphorical than the time it healed Henry Jones Sr.’s gunshot wound. And even in the most tragic Gilliam films, the residual rage and sorrow of the ending can be inspirational, because you know that there are other geeks out there in the world feeling the same way.

But here, as in Parnassus, the action shudders to a stop. We don’t learn the fates of Bob or Bainsley, or whether Qohen finds some sort of peace with his existence. I’ve been thinking about ZT’s ending for a week now, and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s a statement of nihilism, or an attempt to come terms with the ultimate mystery of existence. The important thing, though, is that it has stayed with me, and that Gilliam has once again, after a career filled with setbacks and disasters given us a film worth wrestling.

 

You can see The Zero Theorem on VOD, but I’d recommend seeing it big! Check out the listing of U.S. screenings here.


Leah Schnelbach thinks we should all pay into a trust fund so Terry Gilliam can make movies forever. Follow her on the dystopian communication nightmare that is Twitter!

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