The latest mind-bending science fiction fantasy feature from American animator and director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem (2013) depicts an admirable quest for higher meaning in the digital age, playing like a sadder B-side to 1985’s Brazil. Detractors of the former Python’s peculiar brand of fantastical whimsy will not find anything to convert them to the cause, but fans will find the picture to be a welcome compendium of his work to date. Gilliam, essentially a genre unto himself, mines his favourite thematic concerns, albeit with a modern slant. While it’s unfair to call such an imaginative work predictable, there is a niggling sense that Gilliam is firmly operating within his comfort zone.
The Zero Theorem follows the story of computer genius Qohen Leth (German actor Christoph Waltz) working for a shadowy corporation in the near future, attempting to solve the “Zero Theorem”, a seemingly impossible equation proving the uselessness of life. He’s an introverted misanthrope, but the arrival of the mysterious Bainsley (played by French actress Mélanie Thierry) prompts him to re-think his approach to life. It’s a sad indictment of the worrying state of the modern CGI-saturated science fiction aesthetic that the actual physicality of Gilliam’s latest offering feels genuinely thrilling. It’s a true delight that the director is still afforded the creative freedom to build worlds in his own vision. There’s clearly life in his work still, the sense of streets pulsating with imagination palpable.
Even in the enclosed spaces, like Leth’s converted church home, there are dozens of design ideas in every single frame. There’s loving craft in what he does; an analogue emporium of surreal creativity. It’s difficult to think of any other contemporary blockbuster director working in this way today. The satirical visual flourishes that Gilliam loves are all present and correct. His breezy Orwelliana is ubiquitous throughout, taking the ideas of the author and transposing them into sharp, cinematic gags. Thirty years ago, these motifs had an irreverent, almost flippant quality. Now they seem more resigned. The Zero Theorem is clearly a film by a director who has become more reflective in his later years. Where Gilliam’s films once had an offbeat buccaneering spirit, this picture feels more pensive in its commentary on the dispassionate nature of technological progress. It feels like a plea for real, emotional connections in a world increasingly reliant on virtual communication. This sense of heart softens the zanier elements of the director’s style. There is clearly a soul behind the eccentric bluster.
This review was originally published on 20 October 2013 as part of our extensive London Film Festival coverage.