Director: Terry Gilliam; Screenwriter: Pat Rushin; Starring: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Ben Wishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton; Running time: 107 minutes; Certification: 15
How to go about approaching a Terry Gilliam film is something very much down to the individual. Like Wes Anderson, who currently has the bonkers yet charming The Grand Budapest Hotel circling cinema screens and disorientating projectors, he’s nothing other than an auteur. With each film we know to expect a certain style; something which uncompromisingly subjugates mainstream cinema with the personal conviction of its creator (the very reason The Brothers Grimm wasn’t warmly received was because Gilliam was forced into making the film Harvey Weinstein wanted). The Zero Theorem, in that respect, is no different. Immediately we know we’re in Gilliam’s world… and what a world it is.
If the film fails somewhat narratively, it succeeds through marvellous visuals and production design. Every frame is intensely immersive, whether it’s inside Qohen’s (Waltz, who, as ever, is really great) dark, dingy church or outside in the vibrant, lucid, overcrowded London streets. Like Aardman, a company famous for inserting a plethora of easter eggs and hidden gags in their movies, there’s simply so much going on in the background of The Zero Theorem that we’re sure to be missing things all the time. If nothing else, it’s a reason to go back to it.
The joy bursting through the cinematography is juxtaposed by the plot itself, which in a way brings the film to its knees. Essentially what’s happening (though it’s not always easy to see) is Qohen is attempting to prove the eponymous Zero Theorem: that everything in the universe equals nothing. That life and existence add up to zero. While he himself doesn’t believe or perhaps even understand it, and is clinging desperately to the hope of receiving a phone call which will explain to him the meaning of life, he’s still tasked with finding an answer that gradually descends him into madness. The depressing undertones only add to the mad cacophony of the experience, but it’s the lack of evolution in the structure which hampers. We begin with a mad, naked man rattling on a futuristic computer trying to understand himself and the world around him, and we end with a mad, clothed man rattling on a futuristic computer trying to understand himself and the world around him. A load of ideas and questions are thrown at us along the way, but our reason for being here is never quite proven.
Still, it’s almost always intoxicating to be in Gilliam’s world when he’s shaped it with such finesse, and for that reason alone it’s hard to leave without feeling even moderately satisfied. It’s a weird, slightly incoherent and often jarring film, yet strangely enjoyable to spend time with.