REVIEW: THE ZERO THEOREM / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TERRY GILLIAM / SCREENPLAY: PAT RUSHIN / STARRING: CHISTOPH WALTZ, MÉLANIE THIERRY, DAVID THEWLIS, LUCAS HEDGES, MATT DAMON, BEN WHISHAW, TILDA SWINTON / RELEASE DATE: JULY 21ST
We all love Terry Gilliam: one of the great originals and, having moved to Blighty in the '60s, very much “our” Terry. So it’s no surprise to see a film come along that looks like an impersonation of the great man’s work. Except, of course, The Zero Theorem isn’t an impersonation, a homage or even a tribute. This is Gilliam himself. So why doesn’t it quite feel like it?
Qohen Leth (Waltz) has a job that’s something to do with computers (like Mum thinks we do) in a hellish and unfathomable workplace supervised by Joby (Thewlis) under the shadowy direction of Management (Damon). But really he just wants to work from home. Perfectly normal if you ask us but he also needs to be home to take a mysterious phone call about the meaning of life or something. Surely “I hate my colleagues” would do? He claims the job is killing him (oh yeah, been there) but Management only grants his wish on the condition that he takes on a new task: to solve a theorem that proves the universe is destined to implode into a black hole and that all existence is ultimately pointless. We’ve all had jobs like that.
All your Gilliam tropes are present and correct: retro hi-tech with an array of grotesques in those inexplicable plastic clothes and odd hairstyles; everything is inefficient and we’re left in no doubt that this your basic Gilliam dystopia. As it’s Gilliam we also have a fairly illustrious cast but you can’t quite ignore the fact that the brilliant Christoph Waltz is actually a bit wasted here; Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw and (especially) Tilda Swinton seem, like Robert De Niro before them, to be there for the sole purpose of inciting a collective “ooh, isn’t that...? I’d never have recognised them”, and dear old David Thewlis seems to be playing, well, David Thewlis. Like Brazil (1985), this isn’t a warning of what our world might become, it’s a satire on what it already is. We spend our time doing pointless tasks and looking at our devices rather than communicating with each other. Qohen avoids contact with the outside world and when Management sends a call girl to keep him happy (Thierry) he’s impotent until he makes cybersex contact via her website. Even then he screws up. Like the theorem he’s trying to prove, it’s all pointless.
But herein lies the problem. The message isn’t particularly subtle, this is as sledgehammer as you’d expect from Gilliam. What it doesn’t have is any of that originality, flair and unexpectedness that we’ve come to, er, expect. We’ve seen it all before. This, if you can imagine such a thing, is Gilliam-by-the-numbers. If you’re a fanatic, you might just enjoy this but there’s also the danger you’ll come away thinking you’ve just seen a Gilliam pastiche.
Extras: The Rats featurette / Location Breakdowns (Qohen’s Chapel, City Streets, Mancom, Mancom Mainframe, Virtual Beach, The Park) / London Film Festival Q&A with Terry Gilliam