Tuesday, March 11, 2014

'The Zero Theorem' (2014) directed by Terry Gilliam

A new Terry Gilliam film? A twisty-turny philosophical acid-trip set in an insane future metropolis? Starring Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, David Thewlis, Matt Damon and Mélanie Thierry?  Get me a ticket already - no wait, get me five! With that directorial pedigree, a cast stocked with my acting heroes and a really intriguing trailer I figured this was as sure a sure cinematic bet as I could get.  

So it's with a sense of crushing disappointment and mild depression that I report that The Zero Theorem is a load of ugly, confusing bullshit.  It's probably a bad sign when, mid-way through a movie you realise you're straining every single neuron in an effort to enjoy something - and still finding it confusingly boring.  I wanted so much to enjoy this ambitious, intellectual, endlessly imaginative film, served with a bag full of good ideas, interesting visual flourishes and bizarre performances - but it all adds up to, well, zero.

Set in a future city that looks as if every single contemporary trend has been jacked up to 11, The Zero Theorem tells us the story of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a mentally ill savant living a reclusive life in a rotting church. Referring to himself throughout as 'we', Leth is morbid, fatalist and pessimistic - convinced that he and everyone around him is dying.  His principle obsession is waiting for a phone-call that never comes, a phone call that will apparently give him some kind of spiritual salvation. The only reason he ever leaves his sanctuary is for work; crunching "entities" for typically dystopian 'does everything' megacorp Mancom.

If only the entire film was this interesting...
Pleading with his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to be able to work from home, Qohen is brough to the attention of the camouflaged and vaguely inhuman 'Management' (Matt Damon) - a combination of Half-Life's G-Man and The Matrix's Agent Smith.  He tasks him with solving the titular zero theorem, an equation that will prove that zero equals 100% and apparently therefore that all life is ultimately pointless. This impossible task has driven everyone who's tried to solve it insane, though perhaps Qohen's existing insanity means he has a leg-up on them.  The rest of the film is him slowly going (more) bonkers in his church, being visited by a gallery of grotesques who may or not may not be there to help him.

What's most frustrating is that Gilliam's futuropolis looks amazing - for the brief moments we get to experience it.  It shares a lot of DNA with Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan and STUDIO4°C's Tekkonkinkreet - though with keenly idiosyncratic Gilliam twists. The city is a blizzard of animated billboards, day-glo synthetic fashion and buzzing futureslang. Everything is extrapolated from modern trends; citizens have iPads all but surgically attached to their hands, infomercials advise you to join 'The Church of Batman the Redeemer' and work appears to be an abstracted videogame with little obvious point.

This is all in the first ten minutes and it's dazzling stuff - so dense and overpowering that it gives you a sense of dislocation, making you feel 'old' and out of place in this sugar dosed, hyper energetic, jam-packed cityscape. At this point I settled into my seat happily, eager for Gilliam to explore the exciting future he'd so deftly sketched.  But then it's over - at least 90 minutes of remaining runtime set in one static location.  It's an interesting, detailed location granted, but it's entirely shot with nauseating dutch angles and neon lighting. Claustrophobia soon sets in and the film becomes an unrewarding, unpleasant grind.

Without the distraction of the visuals you soon realise that these characters are cyphers; caricatures that spout metaphysical bullshit so overwritten that it'd make the Wachowski's blush.  There is nobody remotely relatable in the entire film and the mental tics of our protagonist quickly become deeply annoying.  Waltz, who prior to this had an aura of actorly invincibility, is completely at sea, given an utterly thankless role without any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.  The rest of the cast seems similarly lost, going through the motions with a vague sense of confusion and probably trusting that everything's going to work out in the edit. It doesn't. 

On paper this is very much my kind of film.  I always prefer an ambitious failure to a safe success - a preference that makes Gilliam my kinda director. But it's difficult to detect exactly what ambitions this film has. In writing about film it's often useful to try and work out what the original spark of inspiration that gave rise to the film was. Here I genuinely can't tell - is it a parable for dealing with loneliness and isolation through technology? A satire of our already information dense world? Perhaps something that posits technology as a modern religion? All at once? These strands and many more all run through the bloodstream of the film yet none of them are even close to being fully realised ideas.

In the end all you're really left with is some interesting production design and the sense that whatever this is, it's at minimum an individual vision. Granted it's a deeply frustrating and aggressively unfriendly vision (and one with an impressive disregard for commercial viability) but it is, I guess, the film an artist wanted to make.  Unfortunately there's so much wrong here that I can't even classify The Zero Theorem as a noble failure.  It's just a failure. And that's a damn shame.


The Zero Theorem is on general release from March 14th.

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