Release Date: 14th March 2014
Running Time: 107 minutes
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon
Terry Gilliam has had what one might call “a bumpy ride” in his nearly 40 years of filmmaking. From his films being re-cut to entire productions being swept away in floods, he’s had worse luck than most but steadfastly refuses to give in. He’s been known to turn some of these filmmaking limitations to his advantage in terms of creativity, improvising to create some truly unforgettable cinematic moments. The one problem that Gilliam has consistently faced however is finding the right audience; his mainstream films too bizarre, his indie films not quite clever enough. He has a devoted fanbase, but will that be enough to save The Zero Theorem from fading into obscurity?
Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an anxiety-riddled misfit who hates his job and spends most of his free time waiting for a mysterious phone call, from which he is convinced he will receive the secrets to life and the universe. After pleading with his superior (Thewlis) to work from home in order to wait for said phone call, he is reassigned to work on the Zero Theorem, a project which forces those who work on it to prove the theory that everything adds up to nothing: in essence, that nothing has any meaning.
It’s thematically similar to Gilliam’s 1985 dystopian masterpiece Brazil, in that we see a future where our freedoms are compromised and we retreat to our imaginations in order to indulge in our fantasies. However where Brazil offered ideas and themes within a coherent narrative, The Zero Theorem feels much more disjointed and aimless. This occasionally works to its advantage as it mirrors the ennui arising from the subject matter, however at times it’s too formless and so ends up feeling a bit pointless. Gilliam is a master of the surreal, but too often here it comes off as banal and inane, and not in a way that particularly adds to final product.
However as ever in Gilliam’s films, there’s nearly always something to admire. Once again he’s created a living, breathing, bizarre world that is positively bursting with detail: the frame crammed with people, colour and relentless noise. Zero Theorem is at its strongest when it’s at its most vibrant, introducing us to colourful characters at an almost whirlwind pace and making us laugh with his trademark offbeat humour. Christoph Waltz gives a by the numbers Gilliam performance as Qohen, and the supporting cast range from the genuinely funny (Thewlis) to the supremely irritating (Hedges), but most memorable are Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton’s hilariously bizarre but brief appearances. Far from a success, but not a complete failure, it’s comforting all the same to see Gilliam still producing his own eccentric brand of filmmaking. It may not always be perfect, but cinema just wouldn’t be the same without him.