17th Mar2014

‘The Zero Theorem’ Review

by Ian Loring

Stars: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend | Written by Pat Rushin | Directed by Terry Gilliam


Terry Gilliam may be a national treasure but that doesn’t preclude him from making films which can at times sink a little too much into his fertile imagination at the expense of being particularly absorbing. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a late 1980’s financial disaster which found him being given a lot of toys to play with but not being able to make a film which really connected with the heart or head and his last effort The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus is a film which seems to get by almost on the good will of the viewer alone. He is a man to be admired certainly, any man who makes Brazil must be, but he is also one prone to palpable flaws. That brings us to The Zero Theorem.

There is none more Gilliam than The Zero Theorem. Stacked with crazy side characters, dark visions of the future, absurd production design and at it’s a centre, a lowly but sympathetic protagonist, the film feels and looks like a melting pot of all the “stuff” swirling around in his head. However, while the aforementioned Brazil, Time Bandits or Twelve Monkeys have an engaging and coherent narrative to pin these down onto, The Zero Theorem’s plotting feels like a random stream extrapolated from the visual ideas Gilliam has in his mind’s eye.

Can a man with a faith which eats up his entire life also prove that the universe and life itself is meaningless? That is a fascinating idea which could be the springboard to a cerebrally satisfying encounter but here, this is merely the stepping stone towards a view of the internet which feels like it would have been out of date at least a decade ago, Melanie Thierry gamely dressing up in a variety of alluring outfits while never threatening to break out of the “tart with a heart” trope we’ve seen in film almost since cinema began and a total sense that we’ve been here before and was better back the first (and second) time.

Part of this is surely due to a limited budget and shooting schedule hampering Gilliam’s vision and when the film moves out of its largely one-location environs, the frame holds all sorts of quirky joys (my particular favourite being the interactive advert which addresses every person it comes across as “Madam”) and indeed the lack of time may have fed into a feel of frenzy which takes over the film from time to time and perks the interest.

Also keeping the flame alive is a fantastic central performance from Christoph Waltz who feels entirely relatable while being told constantly that he’s barely fit to be part of society. His is the beating heart of this cold, unusual world and you will him to somehow succeed even if you know that may mean the end of everything. On a human level, he connects when none of the other characters ever do, though as alluded to earlier, Thierry does try her best with what she’s got.

It feels odd to say for a man with an imagination as vast as Terry Gilliam but The Zero Theorem feels like a film where he repeats himself to increasingly dull effect. Gilliam is a master of his craft but this is another misfire in a career just as notable for those as it is for his successes. For fans, they will get their fix but for those wanting something just a little different from what they expect from Gilliam, look elsewhere.

** 2/5


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