Terry Gilliam’s latest has divided the critics; we wonder where The Zero Theorem draws the line between poignancy and preachiness.
Terry Gilliam’s latest film, The Zero Theorem, is the story of reclusive mathematical computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who has been assigned to unlock the formula of the Zero Theorem, a theory which derives from the Big Crunch theory. Having been assigned to such a nihilistic and pessimistic venture, Qohen attempts to find meaning in his life, which is said to derive from a phone call. The Zero Theorem is both the third instalment in Gilliam’s own Orwellian dystopian trilogy (Brazil in 1985 and 12 Monkeys in 1995, respectively), and his own response to contemporary internet culture. In viewing it as both part of a trilogy and as part of Gilliam’s own attitude, The Zero Theorem could be read as either preachy or poignant.
Neither Brazil nor 12 Monkeys were allegorical in inception, but Gilliam made The Zero Theorem with allegory in mind
It must be said that neither Brazil nor 12 Monkeys were preachy movies; Brazil was a Pythonesque retelling of George Orwell’s 1984, and 12 Monkeys was heavily inspired by the 1962 French short film Le Jetee. It can be argued in retrospect that Brazil was a response to the rising yuppie culture and the increasing governmental controls under Ronald Reagan, hence the Sam Lowry character, and 12 Monkeys updated the short’s central peril from a nuclear attack into a global virus – the new threat in a post-Cold War world. In short, neither of these dystopian films were allegorical in their inception, and that’s where The Zero Theorem stands out. Gilliam made this film with an allegory in mind.
The Zero Theorem has Gilliam at his most cynical. The overabundance of bold colours and clashing tones in the film’s sets assist in the picture’s cynical attitude: it poignantly depicts a world of bright exteriors and hollow interiors. The visuals highlight Gilliam’s view of the modern world as one of forgotten merit and superficiality, and the world is desperately telling people they have sentimental value. Qohen’s household is a bought church – possibly some religious/modern society commentary here? – yet his workstation is something akin to a gaming convention (Black Mirror’s Fifteen Million Merits, anyone?).
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These juxtaposed against each other makes this dystopian world not one of conformity as previously feared, but one of little distinction between anything. As everything has equal value, the distinction between high and low value is lost. This assists the nihilistic character motivation of Qohen to scientifically prove the futility of existence. However, haphazardly paced and indulgently imaginative – think The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and Tideland – The Zero Theorem can be a grueling experience. Unlike the former two instalments in Gilliam’s dystopian trilogy, The Zero Theorem veers towards preachy territory; the emotional distancing between characters thanks to the internet, most notably in the scenes between Qohen and the seductive Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), comes across more like someone pining nostalgically for the old rather than seeking involvement in the culture.
The film has Gilliam responding to the invasive nature of the state becoming a social norm rather than something that’s challenged
The Zero Theorem could be how an older, wiser Terry Gilliam views the present day, and it’s terrifying. Qohen is monitored via cameras throughout the film and hardly responds to such intrusion. The cameras aren’t well hidden either, asserting the arrogance that the big brother state has over its citizens. This is Gilliam responding to the invasive nature of the state becoming a social norm rather than something that’s challenged; Qohen does say, “I have nothing to hide,” which is the typical knee-jerk reaction to those defending internet monitoring and the increase in CCTV cameras.
This invasive nature of the state and the devaluation of tangibility in conjunction with emotional distancing could be how Gilliam sees the world. The visuals may be distracting, as there is so much to take in, but that may be the point; as advertisers and the state are becoming more as one, with aggressive attempts to turn over profits, it’s no wonder that The Zero Theorem’s street posters would be garish. The Zero Theorem may veer itself between preachy and poignant, but Gilliam fans will no doubt admire how this ambitious project covers many contemporary problems in a colourfully nihilistic tone.
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All images: Sony Pictures Releasing