As you would expect, The Zero Theorem is a truly unique and creative film that makes director Terry Gilliam’s last feature, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus seem ordinary and bland, but can a film possibly be too creative, to the point of being alienating?
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
The weird and whacky The Zero Theorem is the latest installment from the creative mind of Terry Gilliam. Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a socially inept man who is waiting for a phone call that he believes will tell him his purpose in life. In this futuristic, unnamed world, Qohen works for a company that analyses data in order to prove the zero theorem which states that 100% must equal zero, or that essentially there is no meaning to life and it will end as it began; with a black hole. Management (Matt Damon) exploits Qohen’s belief that he will receive this life-defining phone call in hope of increasing Qohen’s chances of proving the theory. David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Tilda Swinton and Lucas Hedges all play supporting roles that either help or hinder Qohen in his quest for enlightenment.
After seeing the trailer it was clear to me that this film was going to be pretty fucked up. I was already confused by the futuristic design, the convoluted plot and the eccentric dream sequences shown in the previews, and as I expected, the film as a whole carried on in this fashion. My expectations of The Zero Theorem actually helped me to enjoy it because I was prepared for the fact that the story probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense to me, whereas I think others were not as prepared judging by the fact they walked out halfway through.
The film attempts to tackle a lot of enormous, existential questions such as why are we here, what is the purpose of life and how will it all end? It is exceedingly difficult to explore all of these topics in the time frame of a feature film, but The Zero Theorem certainly gives it a good crack. At first when the film ended I thought; why did I even sit through all of that? But then as I thought about it more I started to realise just how poignant the film was in terms of pointing out that life is what it is and it should be enjoyed, rather than constantly questioned and analysed. The film kind of says this in a round-about way and isn’t always perfectly clear, but the message is there nonetheless.
If Christoph Waltz was not in this film I fear that it would have been near impossible to watch. Qohen spends a lot of time working on his computer, which is operated sort of like an X-box game. He manouevres several cubes bearing mathematical equations in a sort of 3D version of tetris and although you know he has to make 100% add up to zero, that’s about the only part of it that is clear. Thankfully Christoph Waltz provides a little bit of clarity as according to his reactions to what is happening on the computer screen you can kind of understand what is going on. Waltz also manages to make an awkward and prickly character rather endearing. Somehow I found his character to be quite likeable despite his constant reference to himself as “we” and his ridiculous number of phobias.
Matt Damon was also very surprising in this film to the point where it took me a while to realise that it was actually him. Oddly, white hair suits Damon, and he perfectly portrays arrogant and callous. I was also quite a fan of his “camouflage” type suits where he blended in with the decor. David Thewlis did a commendable job, as did Melanie Thierry, but I really found Lucas Hedges to be a breath of fresh air. He really contrasted everyone else nicely with his energy, youth and cynicism. Tilda Swinton only has a small part, but her rapping scene was legendary.
The design work in The Zero Theorem is absolutely stunning and possibly my favourite part of the entire film. Some of the costumes were a little too bizarre for my liking, particularly the red suit Qohen wears when he connects up to his computer to experience a simulated reality . Christoph Waltz kind of looked like a Lady Gaga lobster, or even a bit like Jar Jar Binks (see the poster above), but most of the costumes were fabulous, especially in the party scenes. In these scenes the costumes worn were fluoro and futuristic crossed with influences of African tribal wear.
The set design is probably the most outstanding though, particularly Qohen’s home. I loved the clashing and contrasting of different styles, textures and time periods, as well as the many eccentric touches. A lot of the film takes place in Qohen’s home so it really needed to be spectacular. David Warren is responsible for all of the production design work and although he hasn’t been involved in the art department in a lot of films, he has previously worked on The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Hugo and Snow White and The Huntsman.
I’m also a fan of the use of Radiohead’s Creep in a kind of 1940s jazz version. Who would have thought that would actually work? Check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shmt-BReFuE
Overall, I think creativity did tend to overtake the film to the point where it started to inhibit the logic of the narrative. The film is quite confusing and convoluted, but if you watch it with an open mind, there are certainly parts of it that can be enjoyed and appreciated.
Images courtesy of Voltage Pictures & Zanuck Independent