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Mad and scattered though it may be, The Zero Theorem feels like business as usual for Terry Gilliam. If you’ve seen what the visionary filmmaker can do with emotional chaos, fantastical concepts, and corporate dystopias in the Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, and Brazils of cinema past, then you’ll find this latest venture to be less a new exploration of Gilliam’s yet untapped imaginings and more a 'Best Of' reel honoring his greatest cinematic elements to date. In short, while amply pleasant, Zero Theorem is nothing new for the director.
That Gilliam’s adherence to the visual penmanship that has carried with him for decades has become “pleasant” — perish the thought: comfortable — might be its biggest fault. The dynamic “new”-ness of the aesthetic and rhythm in his early features is what made it so compelling a style. Showing little evolution in Zero Theorem, and perhaps even the hint — via a few cloyingly unoriginal sci-fi constructs, like a personalized video advertisement that follows Christoph Waltz down the street — that Gilliam has fallen behind the times in his sociopolitical commentary.
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It’s a horrifying notion that Zero Theorem might be an act of regression for Gilliam (even after a decade of critical maligned work), and one that reverberates as we feel Waltz’s turn as a gifted recluse awaiting tell of the meaning of life amount to little more than cuteness. Alongside him are players equally limited by the fluffy nature of the piece: Melanie Thierry as a batty woman who takes a liking to Waltz’s Qohen, David Thewlis as his troublesome and inept supervisor, Lucas Hedges as a technical prodigy and petulant teen in whom Qohen finds an unwanted sidekick… oh, and a white-haired Matt Damon as “The Management.” Just as the members of Zero Theorem’s Orwellian society are accused of being, each of the film’s players amounts more or less to a tool, a cog in a competent but hardly challenging machine.
The script is no more or less inspiring, just another vehicle to get Gilliam’s wildfire set piece construction and gallant metaphysical ideology running again. It’s all lovely, funny, and an entirely nice way to spend two hours. But it’s hardly the sort of work the director was once assured to deliver.
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Terry Gilliam fans, we finally have some good news for you. The trailer for the director's latest film, The Zero Theorem, was released with all of the brightly-covered, over-the-top dystopian weirdness that we have come to know and love from his work. The film follows Qohen (Christoph Waltz), a lonely, anxious computer programmer who is taked by the mysterious Management (Matt Damon), with solving the titular Zero Theorem, and equation designed to prove, once and for all, whether or not life has a point, and if so, what exactly that point is. The previous programmers who have attempted the undertaking went insane in the process, and the same thing threatens to happen to Qohen. But he's not sure if the added presence of Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and Management's son Bob (Lucas Hedges) is helping him stay sane or pushing him further over the edge. In addition, the cast includes David Thewlis as Qohen's boss Joby, and Tilda Swinton as his computerized shrink.
The Zero Theorem seems set to temper the deep, philosophical question at its center with plenty of Gilliam's trademark irreverent humor. Based on the trailer, we can expect a final result will be just as entertaining as it is thought-provoking — think Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy rather than the Matrix trilogy. In fact, there are a lot of comparisons that can be made to Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, from the giant computer attempting to solve a math problem in order to determine the meaning of life, to the insane, neon-colored futuristic setting, filled with a host of eccentric characters, and the similarity in tone will likely be a good thing for the film, as it will hopefully be able to make The Zero Theorem more accessible to non-Gilliam fans than some of his previous films have been. The future presented by the trailer feels uncomfortably overwhelming, and although that's likely an intention choice, it could turn away moviegoers who aren't familiar with Gilliam's work. By highlighting the humor, it makes the existential crisis at the heart of the film more approachable and more interesting to a casual viewer.
But fans of the director should have no problem getting excited about The Zero Theorem, as it appears to be a quintessential Gilliam film, and should fit easily into his filmography alongside his earlier, beloved projects. Supposedly the final part of a dystopian satire "trilogy" that also includes Brazil and 12 Monkeys, early reviews have already revealed that the film has a much similar feel to the former, both in terms of overall tone and the themes that they tackle. But even if it was set in a distant, Orwellian future or feature a protagonist who must struggle against a larger, dark force that threatens to destroy him, The Zero Theorem feels so distinctly like a Gilliam film that it's hard not to draw parallels to his other projects, and it's hard to imagine any other director tackling this insanely dense story as successfully as he seems to have done.
Brazil is also considered to be a part of a series of films about escaping the awkwardness and disorder of our lives and our universe through imagination, and although The Zero Theorem will not be added to that series, Qohen is able to escape from his life and the terrifying pointlessness of it into a dream world where he can frolic on the beach with a pretty woman or stare into black holes. Though it's not clear how he is able to get to these different dimensions and dream worlds, its clear that it will play a big role both in terms of the plot and the development of Qohen's character. Gilliam also tends to use the alternate realities to explore deeper layers of the film, and to dig into the overarching questions that tend to make up the film's themes. In this case, he's dealing with fear of mortality and whether life has any sort of meaning, both of which are themes that he has used in earlier works.
Setting aside the recurring themes or dreamscapes, The Zero Theorem also appears to utilize a great deal of Gilliam's signatures in terms of visual design and cinematography. Since his days working with Monty Python, Gilliam has been known for mixing animation or cartoon-like visuals into his live-action work. Here, he uses the bright colors, cluttered cityscapes and wacky, unusual costumes in order to give the future some depth and realism, as well as to contrast the terror that the technology-obsessed, corporation controlled future instills in the audience and in the characters. Plus, the use of such a distinct visual palette allows Gilliam to highlight the differences between worlds — a trick he also used in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in order to differentiate between the worlds that Tony was able to travel through. Even when he's using particular shots to make the audience feel claustrophobic or overwhelmed, there's something familiar about the way that he films, which gives off a sense of comfort and makes it clear that this is definitely a Gilliam film.
The Zero Theorem also features on of Gilliam's most used elements: a mysterious woman who appears in the protagonist's dreams and either spurs him into action or results in his downfalls. In this case, that woman is Bainsley, and although she first meets him in person, it appears that she is the one who leads him into the alternate dream worlds. Whether she's helping him or hurting him isn't clear, but like with all of Gilliam's films, it's clear that she will play a significant part in his journey towards truth and insanity. Even the trailer itself features one of his trademarks, and begins and ends with similar shots of the swirling black hole, making it even more clear that this is, in every sense of the word, a true Gilliam film.
With fours years having passed since his last release, and no news other than the repeated cancellation of his Don Quixote project, Gilliam fans should be excited by the trailer for The Zero Theorem, and the imminent arrive of a film that seems to be a bona fide Gilliam production. Many of his films have fallen apart before the production stage, even when fans have patiently endured years of waiting between films, they haven't always been thrilled with the result. This time, though, it finally feels like there is a Gilliam film in the pipeline that is once again worth getting excited for. For now, the only thing left to wait on is an official release date.