Review: The Zero Theorem (2013)


Terry Gilliam is like a fine wine, except the older he gets, he is all the more bizarre. And like a hangover from a jolly night of inebriation through Time Bandits (1977), Brazil (1981), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Zero Theorem is the snow settled after the blizzard, a grand encore to remind you of your past adventures. The Zero Theorem is as much a Gilliam-sized hit of nostalgia as it is a cocktail of longing, gazing back on the days of old. In those days, there were no spying cameras hidden throughout your home and no dazzling virtual reality tech to make you ponder the existential, just a simple life to enjoy your imagination. I’m torn on whether Gilliam enjoys his world or loathes it. I think it’s a bit of both.

And if The Zero Theorem is a companion piece to Brazil – which it undeniably is — it would better serve as its counterpart. The streets aren’t governed by Brazil‘s grayscale monotony, they’re a bizarre flurry of colour, advertisements chatting and stalking you down the streets. It’s a world devoid of minimalism, but not too far from todays. Our hero, Qohen Leth, is a computer hacker extraordinaire, housed in a run down cathedral precariously located next to a sex shop. He is an agoraphobe, a claustrophobe, and just about any other phobe you could imagine. He loathes his workplace and begs to hack from home. His manager — not to be confused with resident Big Brother, ‘Management’, helmed by a strangely suited Matt Damon — advises him to be careful what he wishes for.

So Qohen’s workstation, a flashing retro-hipster fusion of plastic and neon vials, joins him in his towering cathedral. His door is secured by seven different locks, and the building is home to a colony of rats, doves, and oodles of microwave meals. Whenever the phone rings, he darts to its side. It’s never the call he was hoping for, “his call” that explains every iota of existence, just another disappointing deadline from the mysterious Management. Deadline for what, you ask? Qohen is tasked with decoding the titular ‘Zero Theorem’, a mish-mash of data that could explain all or nothing. Qohen thinks all and nothing is the same thing. He’s not wrong (and, at the same time, perhaps he isn’t right?).

The process seems impossible, but Qohen is making progress. To him, he isn’t, it’s just one step forward and a dozen back, his house of cards crumbling as he perfects its steeple. Hacking seems fetishistic: keyboards are gone, replaced by the future equivalent of an Xbox controller, joysticks twiddling and flashing buttons twanging. This future seems to beg for attention, a world of flashing lights and arcadey sounds to captivate our ever degrading attention span. Even work is a game, just a twiddle of joysticks and a colourful computer screen. It’s quite unlike Brazil - Lowry’s world was uninteresting and bleak, distractions were a temptation. The Zero Theorem is its pole.

But Qohen avoids distractions like the plague, never daring exit the security of his towering cathedral. Along comes a pretty blonde strippergram dressed in a latex nurse suit. He avoids her and recoils from her touch, enjoying loneliness more than her charming company. Nor is he the life of a party, nearly choking to death on a piece of candy. Soon, the colourful strippergram Bainsley introduces Qohen to the future equivalent of phone sex, where they plug themselves in and go at it online. The web extension is .sex – subtle. Technology is a fetish.

Gilliam is less a filmmaker than a magician. He conjures up the wackiest location you could imagine, only to whirl you there with a wave of his magic wand. The journey is exciting, like traversing a tunnel of colour and lights, a carnival of the strange but delightful. Behind the colour nestles a drunken nostalgia, an understanding of something more, a little something you may have missed. The colours pop and scream, but his alarming cynicism bleeds through the picture. Qohen is sad, his cathedral gothic and ancient. He is reluctant to live in his new world. Perhaps Gilliam shares his reluctance.

Qohen’s obsession with nothingness is existential, of course, but far from nihilistic. It’s his faith, the God that echoes throughout his cathedral of memory and sadness. This faith saps his life, sucking it into one of Gilliam’s neon-lit vials. He doesn’t refer to himself as ‘I’, but as ‘we’ and ‘us’. He is so distracted that he is no longer his individual self – he is as selfless as the monks who lived in the cathedral before him, sworn to chastity and silence.

Gilliam once said “People in Hollywood are not showmen, they’re maintenance men, pandering to what they think their audiences want.” If that is true, Gilliam is like the dashing  terrorist of Brazil, lobbing a spanner in the works to grind against Hollywood’s corporate gears. Unlike Brazil, his latest film is far from perfect – his female character, for one, is underdeveloped. But to Gilliam, Time Bandits was about childhood, Brazil was about adulthood, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausenen is about old age. The Zero Theorem is about the in-between, the moments in life where you don’t know who you are. In the end of his tale, I hope Qohen has figured out who he is – I want him to move into the next stage of Gilliam’s master plan.