THE ZERO THEOREM (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
– Christoph Watlz as the main character Qohen Leth
Peculiar, delirious, dynamic, odd, warm, nonsensical, elevated, paranoid, gaudy
Strong Orwellian overarching theme
Unique visual production
Commentary/parody of decaying human interaction in the future
Demonstration of social vapidity
Uplifting performance by Melanie Thierry
Muddled presentation and plot
Incongruous set design
Not my favorite Christoph Waltz’ performance
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
Terry Gilliam’s (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) madcap science fiction epic, The Zero Theorem, stars two-time Academy Award-winner, Christoph Waltz, as Qohen Leth, an eccentric and reclusive computer genius plagued with existential angst. Living in isolation in a burnt-out church, Qohen is obsessively working on a mysterious project personally delegated to him by Management (Matt Damon), aimed at discovering the meaning of life - or complete lack of one - once and for all.
WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT
The film is a de-facto, but not self-admitted last part of Gilliam’s “Orwellian Trilogy” starting with the fanciful Brazil, then scattershot 12 Monkeys, and now with this his latest, The Zero Theorem. Gilliam stated that initially, it was not his plan to purposefully create this movie in an obvious thematic touch as Brazil, due to the length of time the aforementioned movie was released (1984). He admitted, however, that he see the definite common presentation to where the “put upon trilogy label is befitting.” This movie holds true to its sold intent. Christoph Waltz plays the main character Qohen, who is basically trying to find the meaning of life, while mucked down in abhorrence with the world around him and to a greater extent, the theoretical world of his own existence.
The movie is a combination of a simple plot driven story and studious character development intertwined with Gilliam’s theoretical ambitions towards delivering a thought provoking small picture. Waltz plays Qohen as a man who refers to himself as two people. When responding, he say “we” or “us” and does so within a cyber-punk Forrest Gump manner. This is done because Qohen is a double-sided, gauche coin. He is everything and also nothing. He is our main character, but a drone. We examine him as he is everything, leading the audience into the film’s reality, but also anonymous in an individualistic taxpaying nobody kind of way. When you are first introduced to him, he is sitting naked, on a futuristic stool laser focused on the computer monitor in front of him. He is crunching numbers and wailing on buttons that would give a sane person carpel tunnel in the brain. There is a rhyme and reason to this action but doesn't lend itself to any coherence. He is a gerbil on a treadmill - movement is present with him; he is just not going anywhere. There is something of an exhaustive connectivity in trying to examine him, but it comes at a pass, since this is a two-time academy award winner we are viewing after all, even though he looks like a bootleg Lex Luthor with kryptonite for a personality.
Gilliam’s world is shown at wonderful, high camera angles braced in gaudy inclusiveness. In lesser hands, this is an exploitation production, but in Gilliam’s, it’s visual corny refinement. The streets and buildings look like a happy meal with Boy George face paint for the prize. It’s clown makeup mixed with Blade Runner. Gilliam layers movement throughout the film. Like Qohen’s computer driven mind, there is an embodiment of movement overarching the film. If the characters are sitting down, the screen moves between the characters which heighten their personalities to pop with dexterity. Even when Waltz is scurrying from one frame to the next, his eyes roam in active choreographed unison like temporal ping pong balls. From the opening shot, Gilliam doesn’t need to explain his world. If you are familiar with his work, then this will feel normal – if you’re not – he says too bad! What you see is what you have to accept. Nothing visually makes sense, but there is something familiar with the inhabitants and the watchful state that spies on them. Again, we deal with big brother themes, with Qohen slavishly “worker bee-ing” for a company handled by an oligarchy boss named "Management", played by Matt Damon, who is channeling his best Batman villain, Riddler-esqe, patterned zuit suit. Management sets Qohen on a quest to find out what Gilliam’s thoughts are on “religion vs. creation”. The further he looks, the more confused he becomes, burrowing in his own contempt at existence with no answers within attainable reach.
Compelled to find the truth, he finally comes across two characters, first a sweet girl named Bainsley, played by relative unknown, but engaging Melanie Thierry, and Management’s smart ass over confident teenage son, Bob. Both characters are working independently, in the role contributed to whether Qohen finds the meaning of life or not. Bainsley, is a tart, call girl, who is hired by Management to get in Qohen’s way, playfully distracting him from his task. Bob on the other hand, is there to tell Qohen, what’s real from fiction. Thierry, was a playful breath of fresh air. She is much too young for Qohen, but Thierry sell’s the character’s affection for him with a sweet-tooth like sincerity. She is well meaning, and well intentioned. She cares for him, but still has a job to do. You feel her honestly towards Qohen, finding something deeper to draw on in which there is a genuine plausibility as the fractured love interest. Waltz in reverse, treats her with only a small decibel of the reciprocation that she deserves; this is what made the chemistry work. There’s an opposites attract and then there is this. As previously stated, Qohen is everything, and he is nothing. He is a walking plural, searching for a beginning to reconcile with the end, and with Bainsley, it works because it shouldn't: they compliment not in looks, but in feelings.
Bob, for a techno-snot, has all the answers, but none of the work to show for them. He is a young 14-year-old pseudo hotshot kid that assists Qohen in focusing on what’s really important. Like any other young person, actor Lucas Hedges plays Bob, with a brash temperament, underlined with true admiration. With Qohen, Bob exclusively chides his “idiot-savantism,” making interactions for Qohen humanistically tough to relate to – but there is still friendship there quantifying in its own formulaic kind of way. In Gilliam’s future, the world is a depiction marred in social vapidity. There is a loss of personal connections penetrating the film, presented in a slick portrait of immediate accessibility at the sacrifice of substantial organic relationships. So it’s obvious Qohen needs his angel (Bob) and his devil (Bainsley) for human connections and subjective guidance. Overt cameras are placed throughout his world, watching Qohen’s every move in a complicit nature coupled with Gilliam’s masterwork of intertwining standard storytelling with high minded big brother rhetoric. And it’s a wonderful conflict that marks its visual territory throughout the film.
Thematic content pays off in a synthesis of ways that ranges from theology, mathematics, creationism and evolutionism. In lesser experienced hands it could not be pulled off, and to a lesser extent, some might feel it wasn’t - but I did. It kept my consciousness guessing, intriguing me even at times, especially when the movie was hard to digest in thought. Pieces of classic roman architecture from Qohen’s home would be ham-fisted with slipshod technological design that would lend to some off-putting incongruities with the environment. There is nothing gorgeous or smooth with the set designs of Gilliam’s choice. His wonderful camera angles off-set this, thrilling my view, and helping to coat over some of the lack of sophistication with the movie’s overall design.
Waltz, who is one of my favorite actors, was for me, the main attraction to this visually murky textured film. I wasn’t in love with the character, but understood his placement in Gilliam’s vortex. It wasn’t completely weird to connect with him because you are doing so off of Bainsley’s guilt ridden affections, and Bob’s prankish loyalty towards him. Don’t get me wrong - there is delirium on how Gilliam, and Waltz hold the movie together, while simultaneously parodying the very future Qohen finds himself in. Paranoia permeates throughout the film with real conviction. It’s handled in a way in which the characters don’t see it, but we, the viewers, do for we are far removed from the brainy, logical aspect by the end, and are able to enjoyably watch it unfold with illogical heart. Waltz treats the spyglass, like everything else – trivial, inconsequential, because it’s not as important as the promise of a phantom illicit phone call he desperately holds dear to answering.
This is where you see Bainsley’s and Qohen’s encounter after they first met. Qohen is cloaked in future monk guard but titillated, unprotected. Bainsley is sizing up Qohen and is following Management’s orders to blind Qohen to temptation – and it works, but only on a cursory level. Bainsley is artificial in costume by offering more through her presence and the interest towards Qohen, with auspicious femininity. She first busts through the door like her carefully placed chest busting cheaply through the latex nurse dress, in the end of the relationship however, she will look and leave a different person.
Gilliam’s signature is all over this movie to where it will either work for you or doesn't; however, his camera angles, strong pictorial voice, coupled with the promise of Christoph Waltz is more than enough "big bang" for your "big buck". The movie doesn't get too lost in the galaxy trying to find itself, leaving the audience scratching their collective bald heads. Yes, this is a small movie with big ambitions, but it’s also rewarding, and at times reflexive in how Gilliam coherently presents it. Furthermore, there is a combustible energy with the cast that doesn't come at the sacrifice of character development and emotions, allowing you to study the characters and their interactions to where you start to give a real damn. Qohen haphazardly, searches for the zero theorem, but along the way, in this Orwellian grounded macrocosm the “Zero” becomes the “Hero”; and Gilliam, with Waltz, should be more than proud enough to officially place this movie with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, thus completing a loony, but splendid futuristic trilogy.
3 out of 4