It is rare enough for Terry Gilliam to complete a film that when he does so there should be at the very least some baseline cause for celebration. Having only completed 11 films in nearly 40 years of work, his career has been beset upon by famous debacles (the studio battle over Brazil, the swelling budget of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and stalled projects (the masterclass in tilting at windmills that is his never-ending quest to commit Don Quixote to film). Even his last successfully completed project, 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, was nearly derailed by the death of star Heath Ledger. With the universe so committed to the idea of making this man’s creative life difficult, it is fitting that his newest project, The Zero Theorem has the concept of institutional nihilism at the heart of its story.
The film stars Christoph Waltz as Qohen Leth, a computer hacker by trade in a dystopian future. A loner and an introvert, he dreams of the day he can convince the management of his company to allow him to work from home, away from the hustle and bustle and noise of the city. Management (actually one person, played by Matt Damon) approves the request on the condition that he begin a new project, the proof of the eponymous zero theorem, the scope or purpose of which he is not entirely aware. The project consumes him for the better part of a year, and as he starts to lose his grip on reality (in part spurned on by a questionable AI psychiatrist played by Tilda Swinton), Management calls in some external agents to ensure he remains on track. His son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and an alluring siren Qohen previously met at a party named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) only serve to confuse things more for the reluctant protagonist, and once he finds the truth behind the theorem, his mettle must be tested to escape from the clutches of sinister corporate overreach.
The Zero Theorem is one of those hired gun Gilliam films, with a script by first time feature writer Pat Rushin. Gilliam does not do this often, and the result can either be rapturous (Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King) or disastrous (Brothers Grimm) with very little leeway in between. And there is certainly intrigue to be found in the scripting of this film; its dystopian predilections are akin to Twelve Monkeys and Brazil (the culmination of an unofficial “dystopia trilogy”), and its big ideas hearken back to the cosmic scale of films like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and (arguably) Time Bandits. It certainly feels like the backbone of Rushin’s script is the sort of work that Gilliam can use to his advantage by layering his prodigious talents over it.
And layer those talents he does; there are Gilliam hallmarks everywhere to be found. From his love for swooping tracking shots, low angles, dutch angles and love for garish distortion to the imaginative, colorful set and costume design (costume design is one of the more overlooked aspects of Gilliam’s genius), everything one would expect from a Gilliam film is in place. Waltz acclimates himself to the world with aplomb, speaking in plural and shrinking away from the manic crowds that so often invade Gilliam’s projects. Often clad in oppressive blacks with a shaved head and angular bone structure, he is something out of Murnau’s Nosferatu more than the man who became known to the world through his work with Quentin Tarantino. He effortlessly embodies this neurotic, introverted and obsessive man. He is easily the best aspect of the film. Another highlight (which happens so often it should not even need to be said anymore) is Swinton. Her role is not particularly large, and her accent is eerily similar to Snowpiercer (though she lacks the teeth), but her ability to breathe character and charm into every role she inhabits never gets tiresome. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine in their roles, though not particularly memorable.
There is, however, always the sense that something is missing. The Zero Theorem is a film that takes far too long to get moving; its opening sequences may have that effusive Gilliam charm, but they do not succeed in grabbing the audience and transitioning that wonder into interest in the plot. The production design is top notch, but it does not seem to have enough purpose behind it beyond the explication of another of Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopias. Despite Waltz’s good graces, it can be tough to get behind a character like Qohen is tough to get behind as a protagonist, and some of that has to be levied at the script, which does not do enough to fully bake its big ideas until it is too late. There is a point within the last forty minutes or so that the film begins to coalesce, and the relationships between the principal characters develop into something special as the central mystery of the theorem starts to pay off. While this third act does go a long way to make the film more palatable, it arguably comes too late to make it salvageable, and the clunky busy-ness of the first 70 or so minutes tends to stick in the mind with more prominence.
The Zero Theorem seems to have the opposite problem of many of Gilliam’s other weaker works. While films like Tideland and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus tend to stall out by the time they reach their end, unable to sustain the magic and wonder and zaniness promised and delivered early on, this is a film that crests too late. The third act is often sublime, a melancholic look at a man attempting to find meaning in a world he has been tasked to prove lacks it. He tries to find that meaning in Bob and Bainsley, but even they are not enough to overcome the rising dark. It is a parable for Gilliam’s career as a filmmaker in a lot of ways, one man’s fight for meaning against an increasingly sinister and uncaring world, and there is merit to be found within it. There is also a foundational merit to be found in the production and costume design as is so often the case with Gilliam projects and continues to be the case here, but all of this good will cannot overcome its stagnant and uninteresting first two acts. It is eligible for some faint praise with the understanding that Gilliam simply releasing a film is not enough. He should be better than this.