The Zero Theorem (London Film Festival 2013)
The latest dystopian sci-fi from Terry Gilliam is depressing for the wrong reasons. If Brazil was a director at his peak in 1985 predicting a nightmarish future, then The Zero Theorem is a director trying and failing to return to that peak. (He should probably use the time machine from 12 Monkeys.)
The Zero Theorem certainly has the Gilliam aesthetic of the 1980s; the DIY props are perplexing to an extent, but his style is stale – an autopilot mission of someone sticking to a formula. Whether or not its intentional, the plot even revolves around mad scientist Qohen (Christoph Waltz, somewhat balder than usual) locked in a room, trying to solve the same equation with limited success.
But the film goes even further with unfortunately self-referential plot points. Notably, Qohen’s job is to identify if the world really is meaningless, prompting meta-lines: “It makes no sense!”, “I don’t think this means anything!” and “Is this really the same guy who made Brazil!” Okay, maybe the last one is made up.
Still, there’s a dispiriting lack of ideas, with all the creativity seemingly pumped into the wacky set. Even the characters are wild caricatures, with the most prominent one being Bainsley: a femme fatale played by Mélanie Thierry with a deliberately paper-thin personality and even less noticeable amount of clothing. Another forgettable cameo comes from Tilda Swinton as a rapping psychiatrist, which is even less funny than it sounds.
I don’t want to be down on The Zero Theorem. I want to call it an ambitious failure, much in the way I admired The Fountain for is philosophical intent – I believe Aranofsky slaved over research texts and poured his heart into the project. However, all I can picture is Gilliam shrugging at the final draft. Waltz, who can’t even speak off-screen without alluring charisma, somehow does – I imagine that received a shrug from Gilliam as well.
The Zero Theorem is part of the London Film Festival’s “Cult” strand. Screening information can be found here.
107 mins approx