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Gilliam's Black Hole - "The Zero Theorem" Review

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.

Christoph Waltz in "The Zero Theorem."

Christoph Waltz in "The Zero Theorem."

In The Zero Theorem, we follow the tortuous life of the bald, browless Qohen (Christoph Waltz), a shaky, asocial programmer full of existentialist anguish who "crushes entities" (a deliberately abstract videogame-like mechanism which is never explained), for a company called Mancom, whose director, simply called "Management" (a white-haired Matt Damon) wants to solve something called the zero theorem, which would confirm that existence is meaningless.

In this quick, "simple" way and without extra setting, Terry Gilliam aggressively throws us in this messy, multicolored existentialist jelly pool. There is no greater conflict, characters to support, or clear motivations.

Qohen only wants to be away from people, working next to his phone, waiting for an unknown phone call that, according to him, will give him a purpose to his empty life. Is this a proclamation not to depend on the sometimes absurd technology? Is it a criticism of labor alienation? Or, on the other hand, a mockery of the entitled, arrogant hope for a better life?

Melanie Thierry, one of the stars of the film.

Melanie Thierry, one of the stars of the film.

At times, The Zero Theorem seems to be simply a portrait of depression.

From then on, an exaggerated amount of Dutch, low and high angles shots will appear. Every so often a nice little mouse will leave its lair to interact in some nice way with the action. And of course, all the characters will have a kinda-cartoonish register.

But unlike Brazil, 12 Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that buffoonish Terry Gilliam trademark—which usually accentuates the absurd and sarcastic atmosphere—ends up confusing, distracting, and ultimately failing its mark completely.

It feels like Gilliam was busy repeating himself, unable to correctly translate Pat Rushin's (perhaps flawed) script.

David Thewlis also stars in "The Zero Theorem."

David Thewlis also stars in "The Zero Theorem."

Of course, not everything is a failure in The Zero Theorem. As sarcastic as to mention the art direction in a film review as a veiled insult could be, the case is different when the director is Terry Gilliam.

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A highly visual artist, in the same line as Guillermo Del Toro or Baz Luhrmann, he expands in every detail the context where the characters breathe. Qohen's lair, a sort of abandoned church "assaulted" by colorful technology, help explain the complexity of the protagonist, who is torn between his blind faith and the pragmatism of his work.

The city, which is incredibly colorful and hypnotic, is full of hilarious details that reveal its dark dictatorial control, such as prohibitive absurd signs such as "DON'T wear a fox mask" or "do not grab your child's hand." You can make the case that the visuals serve to enjoy The Zero Theorem abstractly and ignore its philosophical babble, and even if you’re right, that's a completely valid option.

And then there are the performances, which manage to maintain the interest of the viewer, even when the story seems to go anywhere. Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, and Tilda Swinton exude so much security and histrionic quality in their dialogue deliveries and body language that one has no choice but to stay to the end, waiting to see if the substance take shape.

There's a scene in which Gilliam seemed to wink at the audience. Towards the end, Qohen, in genuine desperation yells at Management:

"Why would you want to prove that all is for nothing?"

That same emphatic question can be asked to Gilliam himself. Because the--rather confusing—message of the film at times points to that existentialist relentless cynicism that brings nothing to the table.

The city, which is incredibly colorful and hypnotic, is full of hilarious details that reveal its dark dictatorial control.

The city, which is incredibly colorful and hypnotic, is full of hilarious details that reveal its dark dictatorial control.

Movie Details

Title: The Zero Theorem

Release Year: 2013

Director(s): Terry Gilliam

Actors: Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, Mélanie Thierry, a.o.

© 2019 Sam Shepards

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