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The Zero Theorem


I’m prone to anticipating the arrival of a new Terry Gilliam film more than the fare of any other filmmaker, barring perhaps Joe Dante.  And yet I have learned to temper my expectations in recent years. Whether it’s been a continued difficulty (of temperament?) in getting projects off the ground, the limitations of budget infringing on his high-powered imagination, or simply that he is past his prime, nothing he has made since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has attained consistent greatness. That said, I enjoyed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus immensely; inconsistent, certainly, but it proved to be a gloriously ramshackle greatest hits package. The Zero Theorem also nurses many of the director’s favourite recurring obsessions and themes, and in some respects, it stands as a counterpoint to Imaginarium. One shows a director still in love with the escapism that comes from dreams and the creative impulse, and not allowing the world to dictate terms (albeit with a decidedly bittersweet, Faustian twist), the other is a sombre lesson in the crushing effects of abiding by its rules and becoming embroiled in the abiding madness of its traps.

Gilliam, as ever, announces to the world that each new picture is terrible and a complete unsalvageable mess. And then he launches into impassioned defences when the critics inevitably lambast him. I haven’t read many other reviews, but I’m frankly surprised he needs to spell out that Theorem is a tragedy and not a comedy (this may be part confabulation on his part; he adores the role of the misunderstood madman). This is very much Gilliam in the vein of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, where the one who dares to take flights into fantasy does not succeed. It’s the counter to Time Bandits and (particularly) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; even The Fisher King.

Theorem cements Gilliam’s reluctant re-development as the purveyor of cinema on a smaller, less refined canvas. So it has been since his tumultuous encounter with the Weinsteins. Is there a cause-and-effect to financial restrictions and not quite getting there with the finished movie? Not necessarily; after all Fear and Loathing is one of his best pictures, and bags of money didn’t help Brothers Grimm. What seems to have crept in, ironically, is a lack of self-discipline in knowing how far to hone the footage. Or perhaps it comes from not shooting it effectively in the first place, becoming too indulgent of experimentation and improvisation. A third possibility might be the material itself. This current incarnation of Gilliam allows scenes to go on, even when there isn’t sufficient energy to sustain them; sometimes that can extent to the entire picture. Tideland’s big problem is not that it’s “difficult” (Terry, God love him, always coming up with excuses for why a movie isn’t accepted or is neglected) but that it’s unfocussed, rambling and listless. Parnassus has elements of that as well, in individual scenes, but Gilliam and McKeown have a strong enough narrative through line to keep it going.

Where Theorem has problems – and don’t get me wrong, there’s an enormous amount to like here, and it’s a picture that resonates probably more than anything he’s done since 12 Monkeys, though for different reasons – is in a similar area to Tideland. It has a confined setting with a small cast very much living in their own heads. If you let that kind of material sprawl, you’re in danger of losing a grip, as it is so difficult to get a clear fix on in the first place. Gilliam does a better job here than he did with his adaptation of Mitch Collin’s novel, but he needed to be more brutal in the editing suite; the progression (or lack thereof) of Christoph Waltz’s Qohen Leth is too undifferentiated at times, so there is a danger of the picture becoming one giant doodle. On the one hand, the director succeeds admirably in expanding the material beyond its budgetary limitations and the one basic set (there is very much a feeling of an adapted play to Pat Rushin’s script, with “additional dialogues” from the Gilliam). But there was never any doubt of his visual ingenuity. On the other, at 106 minutes Theorem isn’t long but there is a persistent feeling that it could have been a better, more poignant piece if it had been shaved down to ninety, in so doing sharpening the existential despair.

The piece must be sustained, but there is little internal momentum; the quest for the theorem is a MacGuffin, in spite of some simple but nifty graphics illustrating Qohen’s problem, and there’s no attempt to attach drama to its attainment. It is a source purely of frustration. So it’s necessary to introduce different characters to Qohen’s world to provide a push, and yet they cannot steer the plot in a different direction because fate decrees they are simply there to cajole him to his self-destruction. This also means we don’t really get a grip on Qohen himself. Despite spending almost every moment in his company, we are not invited in. And Gilliam is willing to encourage the pervading melancholy of the piece to carry, so he introduces slapstick abandon. Whilst this is mostly quite winning, and the choice is understandable in order to challenge the inertia, on some level it counteracts Qohen’s descent; he loses his soul while we’re caught looking in another direction. While there is poignancy to the picture, it derives from the themes announce rather than Qohen’s fate. We don’t sense the profound loss of Sam Lowry’s demise (even given his many falls as a procrastinator, indifferent to others until it suits him and ultimately ineffectual in his actions) or that of Bruce Willis’s James Cole. It is this conjugation of elements that makes Theorem Gilliam’s bleakest film. It’s all so inevitable, and the director isn’t even sure it’s worth the fight any more. Gilliam becomes Qohen.

The existential crisis is Rushin’s however, inspired by Ecclesiastes and the ruminations it provoked within him on the meaning of existence, the value of life and its purpose. But this is refracted through Gilliam’s godless world, where the reason to be is to create (to be god); what happens when that creativity is consumed by the machine? Or, in this case, by Management? This is a movie about a wholly misspent existence. Pursuing the dictated path (living to work), distracted by delusions (the only fantasy Qohen has is a faith-based one; his dream world is artificially derived) that eat up his years, shunning those who might redeem him (fellow humans, or perhaps not) and mistaking the only person who could make a difference (love is the only answer, in a universe devoid of meaning; the only other clearly validated principle is money).

Gilliam invokes the sad influences of the modern era, very much as the giggling old man despairing at the world around him; from the uber-surveillance that we all knew about but tried to ignore (and most of us are so distracted, we can’t get worked up about it; passive capitulation, much as Qohen doesn’t bat an eyelid on recognising Management’s close scrutiny of his every move) and the isolating influence of the Internet, the iPad, all those things that keep us from connecting while offering the lie of doing exactly that. And yet, his characters have always been distinctly on their own, away in the constructs of their own minds. The difference here is, the escape is not to be embraced. The outside world is one vast Technicolor yawn; it is only Qohen who is unwilling to embrace the shallow artifice.

This is different to the austerity of Brazil and 12 Monkeys. And so is the protagonist. Qohen just wants to be left alone; he doesn’t even dream of a perfect mate until he is coerced into meeting one. He is a high-performance entity cruncher, a computer whizz who, instead of straying into a dreamscape, hangs desperately on to one he believes to be real.  This derives from the phone call he received many years ago, which tapped him into the universe, however briefly; a “great yawning maw of power” that he managed not to through simple clumsiness not to meet. Ever since, he has awaited a reconnection, and his life has passed him by. Qohen has lived his life awaiting a sign from God, essentially. And now, granted his wish to work from home (in order to be near his phone to receive the call) he is set the task that has eluded or burnt out anyone who has tried; to solve the Zero Theorem; the notion that everything extends from a black hole singularity, “The Big Bang Glitch” (the big crunch theory), and will ultimately reduce to one; solving the theorem will prove there is no purpose to anything, the exact opposite of the kernel of something more that Qohen holds in his mind (“How would anyone believe such a horrible thing?” he asks of the theorem’s proposition). Or, as Joby (David Thewlis) puts it, “Everything adds up to nothing. That’s the point”.

From the point of view of Management (Matt Damon, in a bleach blonde fright wig), the problem is just another business opportunity. Presumably; if there was no money to be made, why would he do it (“I never said nothing is for nothing. I’m a businessman”)? Prove God doesn’t exist, and perhaps consumerism only increases (“There’s money in ordering disorder”). Qohen is blown in the wind by Management, offered shallow incentives (sex, in the form of Melanie Thierry’s Bainsley) and prodding by those with skills he can marvel at (Lucas Hedges’ Bob, who appears to be Management’s son). In a world based upon what we can buy, Qohen is offered the apple of incentive. Yet Management’s overriding use of him (“You represent the antithesis of my project; a man of faith”) is starkly calculated. There is even the promise of that phone call, but all (except Bainsley, maybe her also) believe Qohen is mad.

Perhaps he is. There’s a push-pull here. Who knows what Rushin believes, but Gilliam is a pronounced atheist. Perhaps not one who stops asking the big questions or, Dawkins-like, he wouldn’t have a character spiralling downwards on a doomed quest, but one who is conclusively led to realisation as a release. Yet Qohen’s drive and conviction is a mistake, a misdirection. In Management’s view he is “quite insane”, so Gilliam must side with him even though he is wrong.  The manufacture trappings of faith, and its rebuke, are all around; they’re there in the billboards proclaiming “The Church of Batman the Redeemer” (with Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie looking curiously like Jared Harris); “The church of intelligent design reaches out to that special you” promises another. They’re in the dilapidated iconography of the building bought by Qohen and its forlorn history. It was inhabited by a group of monks who took a vow of silence until it was gutted by fire (“Apparently no one broke the silence to yell fire”).

But this “belief” is the closest Qohen has to dreams; ones that may never triumph over reality, but isn’t the delusion better if it keeps us functional, keep us hoping? Elsewhere his imaginings are only a response to whatever he is jacked into. This is the ultimate tragedy of the last scene. The computer generated perma-sunset beach previously saw Qohen finding brief respite with Bainsley. Maybe he rejects her only because he feels betrayed, but ultimately it is because he cannot break from his repeated behaviour patterns. His focus was/is the phone call, but that faith has been subsumed into the big bang quest (and foreshadowed by the opening shot, as if it was waiting for him to fall all along, a great cosmic joke). This is why, when his imagination takes over, he and Bainsley are floating amid the stars before a black hole. Ultimate, endless emptiness where all that stands in the way of oblivion are two carnal bodies. He cannot put down obsession, and the theorem has taken him over, here lies incipient madness even more potent than his blind faith (but who knows, perhaps the call was real; it was real to him; Gilliam might make an interesting version of The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, and he could do so on a budget of peanuts). The final scene is all the bleaker because there is no inverted triumph for Qohen. The lobotomised Sam Lowry has escaped at least to the refuge of his dreams. Qohen is left alone in the world he has repeatedly maligned as unreal. He has lost the girl, the only chance he had for redemption, and she is not even there in his make believe. What does his bouncing of the Sun mean? Perhaps that he is aware in his mind that even this is no solace. All is hopeless. He can’t even invest in the make-believe.

We’re familiar with the Gilliam’s retro-futures by now, and his arresting production design and costuming are as striking here as ever (the grotesquery recalls that of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Occasionally he is a little busy, attempting to make up for his budget deficits with tricky graphics, smart cars and WHACKY party scenes. I like these features – they make Gilliam Gilliam– but it’s no use pretending they aren’t just variants on a theme. There are other areas where he seems less considered than before, less interested in making something refined and coded. This may be good, it may be bad, but you can hear that cackle of glee, rather than the inner voice questioning his better judgement, when he repeatedly ogles Thierry’s PVC arse, indulges coarse language and installs a camera in the place of Jesus’ head on a crucifix. It’s not that the director shouldn’t get in there with the dung and mess (he relishes it, after all), but that sometimes he just seems to be making easy choices when he should be striving for better (and no, I won’t cut him slack for his age; nothing I see or hear of him suggests he’s any less passionate or invested in his projects, it’s just that his judgement may need testing occasionally).

If Qohen has wasted his life, you can see Gilliam’s concerns over the future generation in cocky Bob. Conditioned and raised without a childhood, he is ultra-bright and ultra-aware. He knows not to burn out on the Zero Theorem, but then he burns out anyway. “I’m young enough to believe in lots of things” says Bob, and once this wasn’t only the message of the hope of youth sold to us by the man who brought us Kevin’s adventures in Time Bandits; he could substitute “old” for “young” and we have the venerable scoundrel Baron Munchausen. Is this as much Gilliam’s statement of how he now perceives the world; that now he is old, he finds so little left to believe in on any level? And so it goes for all of us, no matter which generation we are in. We are all doomed; caught up within this modern, superficial, age, disenfranchised from anything real and divested of any hope. All that we can do is take refuge in the “insanity” of religion or surrender and become a cog in the machine of industry.

Sam Lowry was at least free to think what he wanted, even to the end. The theme of Theorem is “Everything is under control” (also a title of a Robert Anton Wilson book), and the play on words of simultaneous reassurance and paranoia that brings. Qohen is controlled and manipulated at every stage. He deludes himself into thinking he is his own master, that he controls his destiny, that he has got his way by working from home; “We can think what we want” he proclaims, rejecting the decree of Management. This aspect is never quite played up for its dramatic potential; while Theorem is frequently frenetic, it is not borne of narrative movement so much as restlessness deriving from its static nature.

Does the ultimate responsibility for his actions rest on Qohen, or is he so co-opted, without realising it, that the subject is moot? As Dr Shrink-Rom informs him, “I was programmed to leave your peculiar pathology untreated”. Gilliam, who has dabbled in the theme of Machiavellian surveillance in his previous dystopias, finds new fuel with the spectre of the NSA in his rear-view mirror. “Those sessions are private!” Qohen says of his therapy sessions, when they have been hacked. And then he invokes the last refuge of the man struggling against barely covert totalitarianism; “I have nothing to hide!” It is almost inevitable that, compelled to topicality within his warped visions, Gilliam conjures the spectre of child abuse scandals, but in the context of “guilty until proven innocent” media storms; Qohen attempts to help the ailing Bob and is accused of terrible transgressions for his pains (Gilliam may have misjudged this; it comes across as flippant and spur of the moment, without any direct relevance to events).

It is barely surprising that Qohen rejects Bainsley; he wants to believe that she is really interested in him, so naïve is he, when it is quite clear to us she is fulfilling a preordained role. So it devastates him when he learns this is all a ruse. The saddest note is that he cannot tell the difference when she offers him a genuine, heartfelt chance to leave it all behind (“Will you come with me?”); one can imagine their “escape” together, of the dramatic variety that Sam executes in his mind’s eye in Brazil. And his choice precipitates his undoing; when Bob succumbs and Qohen dismantles the surveillance that holds him in check, Management dispenses with his services; Qohen is left with nothing apart from his own empty, manufactured realm.

Gilliam rarely puts a foot wrong in his casting, and Theorem is no exception (the only picture where he goes awry is Brothers Grimm, and that’s down to those meddlesome Weinsteins). We’ve seen Waltz at his most prolific playing confident, witty, urbane types (Tarantino) or ascerbic ones (Polanski’s Carnage). Here he is let loose on something atypical, as Gilliam’s wont to do. And he’s great. Any faults in relating to the character are in the screenplay and director’s hands, not the actor’s. Who and why is Qohen? We hear snippets of how he had a marriage early in his life, but this bears no relation to a man who never seems to have attended a social gathering let alone sustained an interpersonal relationship. His curious habit of using the royal “We” in all his statements is disarming (“At present there is very little we are thinking of that brings joy”, “We prefer not to be touched”) but it is very much window dressing.

Thierry is the latest Gilliam fantasy woman, a “yummy night nurse”, complete with tantric biotelemetric interfacing. She doesn’t exist outside of Qohen’s longing and the director’s lust (did I mention that he adores her PVC-clad arse?). Sure, this the character, she’s intentionally designed that way, and arguably there’s little depth in the men in the movie either, but Thierry is far better than her material. She’s outstanding in fact, making Bainsley sexy, funny, and finally deeply sad. We feel more about Qohen’s plight through her than we do from him directly. All his protestations that his interfacing experience is not real are to nothing when he realises there is an itch he needs to scratch. The virtual sex thing is very ’90s but Gilliam almost makes it work; from the mundanity of the imagination that designs it (“Escape to Paradise”, Total Recall-like, shows the same setting on billboards; Bainsley is using an off-the-shelf programme) to the typically crazy suit Qohen dons to intermesh with her.

The rest of the cast are a fine concoction of assorted Gilliam weirdos. Thewlis delivers the Eric Idle part with aplomb, a cheerful “friend” to Qohen and the benign representative of Management. He gets to dress up in animal costumes and do an Elmer Fudd impression; he’s very broad, but makes an effective antidote to Qohen’s misery and delusion. Newcomer Lucas Hedges (he’s also appeared in a couple of Wes Anderson movies) is another Gilliam “find”, much in the way that he used Heath Ledger and Andrew Garfield before they got big; he fits in seamlessly with his peers. Matt Damon is more comfortable than he was in Grimm, sporting a crazy wig and suits that change design to match the chair he’s sitting in or the drapes he is standing against. It’s very much practical casting (get a name, secure financing) but there isn’t really any way Damon can go wrong with it; his is the most reserved character (“You seem to have mistaken me for a higher power”), in some respects the equivalent of Michael Palin’s in Brazil, the refined face of malignant bureaucracy. There are cameos too from Ben Wishaw and Peter Stormare as unsympathetic doctors and a scene-stealing Tilda Swinton as a Scottish-toned Dr. Shrink-Rom (she even gets to rap, in a moment that ought to be awful but is quite hilarious).

As usual, Gilliam’s world is an indelible one, even on a restricted budget. The decaying architecture and doves juxtaposed with shiny futuristic smart cars lend a whiff of a more colourful variant on Blade Runner. But a prerequisitely distorted one, with the ever-exaggerating wide angle lens at full tilt. There’s a glimpse of Brazil’s samurai dream sequences in the exploding cubes that visualise Qohen attempts to solve the theorem only for his work to be undone (the work as a computer game with joy stick is also a clever trick; make toil look like play and you have a compliant workforce). The broken computer screen, resembling the black hole of Qohen’s mind suggests the glorious kind of double imaging we saw in the sea/sand reveal on the Moon in Baron Munchausen. Elsewhere, the director revels in silly incidentals; the “Yum Yum” ditty that emits from pizza boxes, Fellini nuns, an all-import little person (a really fat one too!), rats who eat pizzas (the rats are delightfully obliging, and you get the impression Gilliam would base a whole film around them given half a chance).  Then there’s Qohen’s The Conversation-esque take down of the cameras around his home. Regular cinematographer Nicola Percorini delivers for the director once again, while composer George Fenton provides an entirely fitting subdued, moody score (it’s his first teaming with Gilliam since The Fisher King); perhaps the most memorable moment comes with the opening; the mournful music of loss draped over a shot of the black hole, pulling out to reveal Qohen fixated over his monitor.

Despite its uncertain pace and structure, or perhaps because of it, the climax of Theorem feels abrupt (it did in Imaginarium too, although there’s a sense there of making the best of things following Ledger’s death). Perhaps a grand gesture would work against Gilliam’s intent. Yet it adds to the feeling that the problem isn’t one of unity of vision, it’s that he hasn’t managed to crack a problematic script in the edit. But there’s also a more pervading issue, and I hope it’s not a sign of the director’s now predominate state but simply a condition of the material. The Zero Theorem doesn’t dazzle because Gilliam is on too much of a downer to do so; he’s moping, he’s negatively inspired, and you can feel his despair. Even love is tarnished and ephemeral, illusionary. Nevertheless, a problematic Gilliam film is still a much better film than most moviemakers can hope to achieve; this one lingers in the mind, warts and all.

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