Title: The Zero Theorem (2013)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare
I hold director Terry Gilliam in very high esteem; he has been one my favorite directors since…forever. He and I have a kinship, we are on the same channel, we see the world in the same way, a world filled with bureaucracy, big corporations and governments trying to feverishly stomp out what’s left of our humanity, our imaginations, our dreams. It’s this particular world view that is always mirrored in his films. There’s this theory in the world of cinema that says that every director keeps making the same film over and over again until he or she dies, this theory holds true for many directors. They don’t always tell the same exact story, but they do play with the same themes over and over again. For example, Gilliam’s films usually deal with characters that escape the horrors of this world by dreaming of a better one. In Gilliam’s films, the great escape is our minds. One of Gilliam’s first films, Time Bandits (1981), is about a little boy who avoids his dismal family life by escaping to the fantastic worlds he finds in his books, in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) the Baron helps an entire town escape the horrors of war by entertaining them with his tall tales and in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Gilliam showed us how our imaginations are really a mirror of ourselves. How what he shows us in his films, is really a reflection of us, of humanity. And now we’ve got The Zero Theorem (2013), does Gilliam play with his favorite themes once again?
The man, The myth, The Legend, Director Terry Gilliam on the set of The Zero Theorem
In The Zero Theorem we follow the life of Qohen Leth, a computer programmer, who works for a company called ManCom. The problem with Qohen is that he’s tired of the repetitive work; he hates to go out into the world, face the noise. In this way he reminded me of the man who turns into a cockroach because he doesn’t want to leave his home to go to work in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. In The Zero Theorem, Qohen believes he can be more productive working from his home, so he wants to meet with management to propose the idea to them. To his surprise, management says “yes” but on one condition, that instead of doing the usual work he does, he must instead attempt to solve “The Zero Theorem”. What exactly is the Zero Theorem and can Qohen solve it?
The original title for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) was ‘1984 ½’, this unused title referenced both George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece ‘1984’ and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), so from very early on in his career Gilliam had an affinity for Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece and Fellini's surreal film. In Orwell's 1984 the government has sucked the wonder out of life and people simply work to produce, to form part of the whole. In this novel, all individuality has been eradicated from society. All these Orwellian themes can be found in The Zero Theorem; for example, when Qohen talks, he refers to himself as “We” never as “I” which lets us see he is so oppressed by ‘the system’ that he has ceased to stop thinking of himself, he only thinks of the group. The Zero Theorem also echoes Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ because it’s a film whose main character is constantly dreaming in an attempt to escape the hectic demands of his life; Qohen escapes to the virtual world, the only place where he can find peace. So yes, this new film has all the usual Gilliam influences, with the added element that Gilliam now comments on the digital age we live in, in The Zero Theorem his characters don’t just escape to their dream worlds, they escape to virtual dream worlds.
A lot of folks are referring to The Zero Theorem as the last chapter in Gilliam’s ‘satirical dystopian trilogy’ a trio of films consisting of The Zero Theorem, 12 Monkeys (1995) and Brazil (1985). The reason being that these films all share the same idea of man trying to survive in a crazy, out of control future where a totalitarian government has brought humanity to a horrible, lifeless end. For example, the main character in Brazil was Sam Lowry, an office dweller who works in a small cubicle, crunching numbers, not at all that different from Qohen, who feverishly works on his computer, without a second to blink. There’s a moment in which Qohen (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) is trying to solve the Zero Theorem and as he is almost there, he’s face lights up in ecstasy, like he was high on some drug, not all that different from when we plug into a video game and solve it. I’m sure Gilliam was commenting on this as well, we work hours in an office only to come home and unwind in front of a television screen, trying to solve a meaningless puzzle, called a video game. Every time we pass to the next level, we get this little rush, this feeling of achievement which amounts to nothing? This reminds me of how the film constantly reminds us that 100% = 0.
The Zero Theorem also explores the idea of religion and the existence of God; yes my friends, on this film Gilliam ponders the big questions. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Is God real? You see, throughout the film Qohen is always waiting for a phone call, a mysterious phone call that will give him an answer to a question that even Qohen doesn’t fully understand, yet he’s waiting for it. Kind of like those people waiting for God to talk to them, they spend their entire lives waiting to hear that voice. In the film, it is understood that Qohen is suffering from some type of insanity because of this illusion he lives under, not unlike your typical Jesus Freak, always expecting for God to talk to them, always waiting for God to solve their lives, to tell them what to do, to answer the big questions for them. Even though the film alludes to Qohen being insane, I wouldn’t say he is. He’s simply living a lie, slowly uncovering the truth, learning that he’s been taken for a fool. The truth is ‘the call’ is a delusion. No one is going to call you. You gotta take the reins of your life. It is sad to see Qohen under such mental stress over these matters, which is probably what the filmmakers want us to notice, the unnecessary mental struggle that religion puts you through. But still, those big questions remain unanswered. Who will answer them? Will they ever get answered?
There’s so much more to The Zero Theorem than what I’ve mentioned here, it’s the kind of film that begs to be seen more than once. I for one need to give it a re-watch, I love it when a film does that to me. It compels me to watch it again, almost immediately. Last time this happened to me was with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001). So yeah, this movie is like a puzzle, it’s a brainy film. It’s made for those of us who like to get all existential and philosophical, all others will probably end up scratching their heads, asking themselves what the hell this movie is about. Is it Gilliam’s best film? Not if you ask this Terry Gilliam fan, but I don’t blame Gilliam himself. The man is working with micro budgets when compared to the gazillion dollar movies he used to make during the 80’s and 90’s. Sadly, this is an ailment that many an auteur suffers from. Big studios won’t give directors such as Gilliam the big bucks to make the big movies they could be making because artful films are risky, and studios hate to lose money on a film. So this is why we’re getting this ‘low budget’ version of Terry Gilliam, which as it turns out, is still amazing. Because it’s not the money behind the movie, it’s the imagination and creativity behind the camera that brings a film to life. And to be honest, films like this mean a whole lot more to me then the latest, brainless Hollywood blockbuster. Terry Gilliam remains the soul of true dreamers, fantasists and artists out there, a director who makes films against all odds, my hats down to you sir. You’ve won yet another battle and have given us another soul searching film.