Robert Altman always felt that you could only get the measure of a film if you see it at least twice. Terry Gilliam’s cinema, intentionally or not, bares this out, since many of his recent films have required more than one viewing in order to entirely make sense of them. Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and now The Zero Theorem are all somewhat difficult works, the former two becoming easier after more than one viewing. Alas, for The Zero Theorem, I’ll have to make do.
Set in the near future – more a utopia than a dystopia, as Gilliam has called it, though presumably only for certain people – Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) leaves his home, a disused church, and goes to work. He is an ‘entity-cruncher’, which is a job that seems to combine complex mathematical theory with pedalling. He wants to work from home as he is waiting on a phone call that may explain to him the meaning of his existence. He has been waiting on this phone call for years. Management (Matt Damon) decides to allow him to work from home but on the condition that he works on the Zero Theorem, a theorem that might just prove the ultimate meaninglessness of existence. He is overseen by his supervisor (David Thewlis) and helped by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges).
If you didn’t know this was a Terry Gilliam film going in, you would be certain of it before the end. The script, written by Pat Rushin, is imbued with Gilliam references. Christoph Waltz looks like Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys; he is bewildered like Jonathan Pryce in Brazil, while the fantasy worlds are from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, albeit this time the result of technology and not magic. As such, however, The Zero Theorem feels slightly dated. The virtual reality suits recall The Matrix and some moments, meant to represent the depressing future, are now a little too recognisable – particularly the party scenes in which everyone dances to their own iPod, which actually exist in the form of headphone discos. In a way, The Zero Theorem feels like a film behind the times, a film Gilliam made over ten years ago and didn’t release until now.
The film has big themes about the meaning of life and the possibility or impossibility of proving that all is for nothing and it is not without interest here. Gilliam has dealt with big themes before but he has never seriously engaged with these questions – certainly not in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. There are few interesting ideas about life being a horrible mistake and death being the ultimate entity, the idea that faith allows people to waste their lives waiting for death, that it is much better to come to terms with the finality of a meaningless existence so that the business of living can be engaged in properly – which is presumably what the slightly opaque ending represents. These ideas come to fruition late in the film, where the entire film is reassessed – and thus requiring a second viewing. The Zero Theorem may just be Gilliam’s most intentionally symbolic film, since the plot here of ‘entity-crunching’ is not important and the film is ultimately just about how we spend and cope with our lives. Leth moves from depression, to madness, to romantic fervour, to disappointment, to anger, to a strangely therapeutic acceptance – somewhat similar to the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. This becomes more apparent as the film goes along, and this is ultimately what is problematic with the film.
Terry Gilliam has always worked best with a degree of chaos, and even his best films have their messy elements, often very successfully integrated into the film as a whole. This ramshackle nature, however, has become more and more apparent in his later work as ideas come thick and fast and never seem to hang together exactly right. Seeing a new Gilliam film for the first time can be a bewildering and disappointing experience and there is always the impression that something has been missed. In a sense, Gilliam does not structure his films well, they move at a great pace but only in the sense of a runaway train. Often the later films can be scattershot and hit-and-miss, as interesting and comprehensible as they are bland and confusing – an interesting idea followed by a fairly terrible gag about a cigarette accidentally placed in a hat. The Zero Theorem feels like Gilliam’s least focussed and most badly made film, an impression not particularly helped by his trademark sets and camera movements (the camera always looks like it is about to topple over) and some bad dialogue from Rushin. And yet, a second viewing, and a third and fourth, allowed Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus to reveal their truer nature, and both came to make more sense, and so, to a degree, writing about The Zero Theorem after one viewing may just be a self-defeating exercise.
What is ultimately laudable about Gilliam’s work is his commitment to challenging the audience and to never make a comforting, easy film. Appreciating these later works requires patience, commitment, effort, concentration and, maybe most importantly, time. And often even messy Gilliam can be more interesting and enjoyable than conventional Hollywood cinema. The overall effect of The Zero Theorem is the feeling that something out of the ordinary has just been seen and that it might require some work, and possibly a liberal dose of one’s own creativity, to satisfactorily decode, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.