Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Zero Theorem

Two favourite films when I was around 10 or so were The Life of Brian and Time Bandits. I know what you're thinking, “The Life of Brian? Weren't you a little young for that?” I guess I was, but keep in mind that at that age I was regularly watching the likes of Predator, Die Hard and Robocop, much to my parents’ dismay. That said, back then I'd have taken Time Bandits over The Life of Brian any day, as it's mixture of fantasy, science fiction and adventure, was and still is absolutely brilliant! Both films were helmed by Terry Gilliam, former Monty Python member, and the man who created the much loved Python animated sequences. Though I've enjoyed a lot of his work, I find myself quite on the fence as to whether I'm truly a fan. For instance, I loved Brazil in all its Orwellian majesty, but found myself incredibly bored throughout The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Sometimes his inventive and interesting visual style literally takes over a film, often leading very little substance beyond it. However, is The Zero Theorem one of those films?


In what could be seen as a visual and thematic trilogy that began with Brazil and then Twelve Monkeys, The Zero Theorem is a futuristic Orwellian tale that deals with various big questions. But unlike the first two films in this unofficial trilogy, it doesn't go anywhere with these questions. At the centre of The Zero Theorem is Qohen Leth, a computer programmer who awaits a phone call explaining the meaning of his life from God, presumably. Qohen lives in a church; his bed is inside an Organ and lives a quite, quaint life. However, that is until he must venture into the outside world, a world that is teeming with colours, noise, people, social interactions, watchful cameras and basically everything Qohen finds uncomfortable and overpowering in life. He works for the Management, a massive corporation that gives Qohen the job of solving the zero theorem; a mysterious theorem that has mentally broken many programmers before him. After getting into a sexual relationship with a sex worker named Bainsley, Qohen must solve the zero theorem, which results in a cautionary tale about technology and its potential effects of preventing us from looking in, instead of out.


Much like many of Terry Gilliam’s films, The Zero Theorem looks both beautiful and highly imaginative. It's set within a world that is very much under the watchful eyes of the Management. For instance, inside Qohen's sanctuary the crucifix's head is replaced by a CCTV camera; at its very heart this is a world that is lost to Big Brother. From the homely, almost womb-like feel to Qohen's church to the retro-futuristic look of the city streets, everything is just sublime to look at. This even extends to the costumes throughout the film, many of which are excessively over-the-top, and bring back memories of Brazil. But while the look, mood, costume and city designs are near perfect, the film fails to achieve this level of brilliance in its narrative.

The problems arise when the film genuinely seems to lose interest it itself. Often jumping from great, inventive scenes to others that are just plain boring, The Zero Theorem feels like a film whose story was made up on the spot. Sure, the journey is far more important than the conclusion in many ways, but even before its disappointing ending, the journey to get to it is often tedious if riddled with sporadic moments of genius. The real kicker is that The Zero Theorem comes across like some muddled and ham-fisted way of telling to viewer, “Turn off the iPhone and interact with other human beings, man!” Yeah, we get it, becoming consumed in technology is bad, as are big bad faceless corporations. We've heard that thousands of times before, Terry. That said, no one can fault the cast here at all. Chistoph Watlz is brilliant as the shy, edgy and socially awkward Qohen, while Mélanie Thierry is wonderful as the sexy and seductive Bainsley. It excels both visual and in its cast, but disappoints in its story.


I came away from The Zero Theorem with almost the same feeling I had after watching Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it feels like it's trying to be a Terry Gilliam film, and ultimately comes across like an imitation rather than the real thing. This is Terry Gilliam trying recapture his golden age, and while it isn't a terrible film by any means, it's nowhere near as good as it should be.

The Zero Theorem fails to solve the problem and gets a 3/5

[★★★☆☆]

Denis Murphy


The Zero Theorem at CeX


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