Terry Gilliam has a touch of the madman about him. It’s in the cursed behind-the-scenes strife that follows him from production to production, making it something of a miracle that he’s made as many movies as he has, let alone so many good and distinctive ones. It’s in his love of crowded set dressing and baroque effects that fill the frame with cacophonous visual stimulation, from the historical phantasmagoria of Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the sci-fi landscapes of 12 Monkeys and cracked “real world” of Fisher King and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s in his deep love and appreciation for characters too oddball and individualistic to fit in the society around them, no matter how desperately the world wants to crush them, even and especially if said crushing actually happens.
His latest film is The Zero Theorem, set in a dystopian future crowded with an exaggerated overstimulation that feels like a close cousin to his Brazil’s obsession with consumption, bureaucracy, and vents. Scripted by Pat Rushin and brought to vivid life by Gilliam and his team, this sci-fi world is like our own but worse, filled with screens everywhere you look, blaring advertisements and propaganda, some deviously personalized to float alongside you wherever you go. It’s part of a web of surveillance and work terminals, designed to make people nothing more than inputs, data to be crunched. At the center of this stimuli overdose is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). He’s reacted to his world by slipping into a waking coma of existential crisis.
It’s understandable. He just wonders what the point of it all is. Every day his boss (David Thewlis) informs him Mancom’s CEO (a white-haired Matt Damon) is demanding more data. A slogan on the wall: “Don’t Ask. Multitask.” Qohen would rather be reassigned to work from home, without having to commute a few blocks – past the billboards, warning signs, screens, and The Church of Batman the Redeemer – just to sit blankly in front of his screen. And so Qohen is given the thankless, impossible task of crunching numbers to solve The Zero Theorem. Everyone who has attempted it has failed, leaving their brains a scrambled mess. Qohen’s the last best hope, mostly because his brain’s already broken in.
There’s palpable madness to this world, as Qohen moves videogame cubes around and the insane world moves with a nonchalant logical illogic. Gilliam’s expert with madness, but at worst his films can get sick on that sensation. And so it is here. Waltz is quite good at selling the mood of a man in the process of shutting down. He thinks he’s due a phone call that’ll tell him his life’s purpose. It’s a quixotic hope, but it’s all he clings to. Meanwhile, The Zero Theorem is nothing less than an attempt to prove that “everything adds up to nothing,” as mindlessly hopeless as anything. The movie is one of fear and neurosis, as psychologically cramped as the mise-en-scène.
Here and there, though, it opens up by allowing more agreeably weird characters into the mix. Thewlis and Damon are charmers in a handful of scenes, but the movie really comes to life when Waltz is paired with a smart aleck teen intern (Lucas Hedges), who has a looseness and an externalized pushiness that pairs well with his co-star’s interiority. There’s also room for a sensual maybe-dream-girl (Mélanie Thierry) and a computerized shrink (Tilda Swinton, who at one point dons a bald cap and oversized sunglasses while rapping). And Gilliam’s design is always impressive, with droll visual bits of funny business. I especially liked the wall of prohibited activities behind a public bench, including a ban on smiling.
In the end, it’s a film I liked in theory more than in practice. It’s tediously overflowing with free-floating anxiety, generalized paranoid fear and sentimental confidence in man’s ability to float above society’s ills, no matter the delusion necessary to achieve said transcendence. But it’s trapped in a beautiful box of its own making. It looks great, but it is stuck without much of a narrative drive, little in the way of interesting character progression, and a world that starts to fall apart before it manages to get anywhere. I liked looking at it for a while, and enjoyed individual moments, but too often I felt myself straining to get on its wavelength. I felt like Qohen when asked if he’s having a good time. With visible discomfort, he answers, “Approximately.”