Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Zero Theorem

In 1985 a former member of Monty Python turned-director, Terry Gilliam gave to the world a film.  That film was, "Brazil", a twisted reimagination of the Orwellian super state, where Big Brother might be watching, but Big Brother is also incredibly stupid.  It was a land of endless bureaucratic clogs, ridiculous reams of corporate paperwork, and pneumatic tubes and ducts floating across every inch of the rotting cityscape.  The only escape from the constant madness on every inch was into your own fantasy, defeating your enemies only in your dreams.  This was Gilliam's masterpiece, a movie full of imagination.  Every piece and detail - be it the disgustingly cheery theme song, or the choking swarm of tentacle ducts - all added up to an entirely brilliant experience.

Of course, I could gush on and on about "Brazil", but only because I would much rather be talking about that movie than Terry Gilliam's ill-fated attempt to make lightning strike twice, the new film, "The Zero Theorem".  Once again Gilliam is conjuring for us a fantastic but entirely unreal vision of the future, where all people are controlled by lunatic powers beyond their comprehension.  "Zero Theorem" is very consciously a "Brazil" successor, with every element of the world design specifically made to be as unique as possible, and starring a protagonist who is losing his grip on reality while trapped in a hopeless future.  However, just because you're are trying to make a movie with the same impact and themes as "Brazil" does not mean you are actually going to succeed.

While "Brazil" and earlier Gilliam productions could proudly let their freak-flag fly with playful bizarrities and grotesqueries around every corner, "The Zero Theorem" seems to be going out of its way to be strange for no reason other than weirdness's own sake.  It comes off as oddly desperate and even pretentious with its world design, which is a nauseating combination of bright colors, hipster clothing, and the obligatory gangster dwarf.  This does not feel like a real world where people actually live and suffer within but rather a false front trying far too hard to be whimsical, like a Nickelodeon game show set or a ghastly children's museum.  "The Zero Theorem" is a lot of loud images, trying their hardest to impress, but failing to cover up the real problem here:  behind all the hipster quirks and weirdness, there is really nothing going on behind the scenes.  It is the 2014 answer to the Richard Kelly pseudo-political catastrophe, "Southland Tales", only made by a far more competent director who should have known better.

Quentin Tarantino-regular Christoph Waltz plays the lead, Qohen Leth (pronounced like "Cohen", but nearly every character in the movie calls him "Quinn" or just "Q"), a hairless programmer for a ludicrously-powerful company, Mancom.  Qohen begins the film already completely wack-balls insane, believing himself to be dying, speaking only in the third-person.  Desperate to work from home so that he can catch a very important phone call which will supposedly give his life meaning, Qohen is entirely delusional.  He lives in ascetic isolation within a burnt-out church, refusing all forms of human contact and food with any flavor in it.  Eventually Qohen is able to convince his boss, an omniscient and mysterious figure known only as Management (Matt Damon in frosted hair), to allow him to stay home.  But in exchange Leth must take the most impossible job in the company:  solving the Zero Theorem, an impossible mathematical formula demanding that '0 equal 100%' which will disprove all of existence and reality.

Welcome to Clown Land, please enjoy your stay.
There are some imaginative and even clever elements within the plot of "The Zero Theorem", which can be compellingly summed up by calling it a mathematical metaphor for the Book of Ecclesiastes*.  (The main character's name "Qohen Leth" is actually a reference to Ecclesiastes' Hebrew name "Koheleth", meaning "Teacher".)  The future Gilliam and his screenwriter, Pat Rushin, conjure up seems to be on some level a swipe against modern technophilia, with the main character having lost all sense of identity and reality thanks to his highly-programmed world.  Qohen's search for answers, waiting for a phone call from a somebody who might as well be God, is utterly futile, and instead he has to find the honest joys in his life.

However, if "The Zero Theorem" was going to be a cyberpunk take on Ecclesiastes, it sort of loses the point towards the end of the film, which is an utter mess, as incomprehensible as it is unsatisfying.  You can have great ideas but to make a good movie, you also need great execution, which is sorely lacking in "the Zero Theorem".  One gets the unfortunate sense that Gilliam either ran out of money or ideas, and the movie simply ends on an entirely false note.

The high-minded themes and references will inevitably blow right past the minds of most audience members, but even accepting them as positives, they do not excuse bad characterization and worse storytelling.  Due to a limited budget most of "The Zero Theorem" takes place in Qohen's house, and the world we see outside his house is an extremely limited one.  Compare to the vastness of "Brazil", which showed you the entire culture, not just some claustrophobic sliver of a much less interesting one.  Very little actually happens during the course of this movie, Qohen comes to no great revelation about living, he finds no answers, and the entire film feels like a terrible waste of time.  There is no inspiring romance or even triumphant victories in the hero's mind.  His accomplishments include eating take-out pizza and masturbating to online pornography.  Inspiring, right?

The symbolism is suffocating.  Aren't we just so endlessly arty?
The script is really a huge part of the problem, giving the solid cast little to do.  Poor Christoph Waltz spends more scenes clowning around in wacky outfits than actually developing a character.  His main love interest comes from a cyber-prostitute named Bainsley, one of those unfortunate female characters who have no purpose in life other than to be inexplicably fascinated by creepy loner men and try their best to save them with sex.  Mélanie Thierry is fantastic in the role, she is a wonderful bright actress who gives this even lifeless movie energy, but it is not enough to save her character from the thankless role she's given.  Bob (Lucas Hedges) is a teenaged programmer sent to help Qohen, who also enlivens the movie, and is also underused.  His character exits the film while being carried out by mobster midgets.

Various other actors are nothing more than harlequins.  Tilda Swinton, wearing essentially the same make-up and accent from her role in "Snowpiercer", plays a digital therapist program.  David Thewlis gets to wear an astoundingly bad wig to be Joby, Qohen's idiotic boss.  And then Peter Stromare, Ben Whishaw, and others show up for single scenes in what appear to be rejected outfits from "The Hunger Games" upper classes.

That of course leads me back onto the subject of the art design, which is so overdone that it reaches the point of self-parody.  "The Zero Theorem" does not feel like a real lived-in world, it feels like somebody trying too hard to make a Terry Gilliam movie... and that somebody is Terry Gilliam himself.  Everything is flash and incoherence, was this dystopian future founded by carnies?  Qohen's programs on a huge tablet, loading programs using vials of colorful liquid.  His calculations are done on a Minecraft-esque endless fractal universe of gray cubes, with the figures being utterly meaningless mathematical symbols thrown together seemingly at random.  Computers in this future work only with Xbox controllers, and for whatever reason, bicycle wheels. 

The streets are littered with nonsense, graffiti, and talking ads, seeming more like a bad costume party than a real world - in the rare moments that the movie's miniscule budget even lets you see the world outside Leth Manor.  There is a Church of Batman the Redeemer, and characters make references to "The Matrix" just to be ironic.  Maybe all of this garbage actually represents something or has some deeper meaning, but it is entirely meaningless to anybody but Gilliam, who I think is just being too clever for his own good.  Then there is the costume design, a wide-awake nightmare of full-body pajames, bras on your head, and sexy nurse costumes.

A contract with Terry Gilliam says nothing about dignity.
I would love right now to be celebrating the grand victory of "The Zero Theorem", a movie that combines "Pi" with "A Serious Man" with the visual flair and style of "Brazil".  It sounds fantastic.  Hilariously bad art design and costuming combines with a pointless story which wastes all of its best ideas.  Great concepts and Biblical allusions will not save a movie that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing.  The philosophizing goes nowhere, the characters never learn and grow, the actors give their best but are wasted by a clowning and repugnant universe.  I really cannot over-state how ugly this world is:  there is a time when art design gets so terrible as to be unforgivable, and this is it.  Qohen Leth could not prove that 0 = 100, but his story was able to take what should have been 100% good ideas and transform them into 0% trash.

As is usual with a Terry Gilliam production, "The Zero Theorem" had a difficult birth.  It was supposed to be finished in 2009, but had to be delayed thanks to Heath Ledger's death, forcing Gilliam to reshoot most of his ending for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (a far superior movie in every way).  This 2014 version was a complete restart of the production, starring a whole new cast.  It was just released on demand this Friday and is coming to theaters next week.  Gilliam got it finished despite difficult odds, he has to be used to production collapses by this point in his troubled career.  As tempting as it is, I won't say that "The Zero Theorem" should have stayed in Development Hell.  Because as bad and as pretentious as this movie is, it still makes for more creative and exciting subject than the mainstream movies I could be watching right now.  You cannot even work up the energy to be disappointed and frustrated in a "Dolphin Tale 2". 

So as bad as "The Zero Theorem" is, at least it tried to do something interesting.  It failed.  It does not even begin to compete with its older brother, "Brazil".  But you're still going to get more of even the worst Gilliam movie than you will with most everything else on the market.  Still there are better options, and movies this pointless have no excuse.

* Ecclesiastes is a most unusual religious text.  Thought to be written by King Solomon, but probably written long after his death, it is a philosophical tract bemoaning the meaninglessness of life, since everything you are, you do, and you create will eventually fade away into nothingness.  Not even wisdom gives the author much comfort from their nihilism.  Entirely out of character for the Bible, this is a very uncertain and ambiguous book which does not say the answers can be found in faith in God alone, or even that there are answers at all.  Jewish existentialism and angst is hardly a modern invention, it goes back to our very core and our holiest texts.  (See also the Book of Job.)

Instead of one easy answer, the author decides that life itself has no greater meaning or answer beyond the joy of simple pleasures such as eating, drinking, working, and of course, honoring God's commandments.  There is no point in sitting around measuring the ultimate worth of your life, for you will discover nothing but depressing hopelessness.  Instead of worrying about the ultimate doom of the cosmos, you should just live the life you're given as well and as happily as you are able.

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