Director Terry Gilliam is back with his first film since The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), which was Heath Ledger’s last. Were it not for the notoriety surrounding Ledger’s death and the curious manner in which Gilliam finished Parnassus without his leading man, probably as few viewers would have seen it as saw the new film, which has arrived unceremoniously (and quickly) on home video.
The Zero Theorem is typical Gilliam, which means it’s unlike most movies a typical moviegoer wants to see. Nonetheless, the erstwhile animator of Monty Python remains one of the most innovative and exciting movie masters at work today. His newest film may not be his best, but the director of Time Bandits, Brazil, 12 Monkeys, and The Fisher King still knows how to work the magic.
Qohen Leth (Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz) is a neurotic, fearful programmer trying to survive with as little fuss as possible in a future urban world defined by visual and audial noises on every spectrum — commercial, advertising, computer, fashion. Most everyone else seems happy and quite at ease in this bright, busy world, but Qohen isolates himself in his cavernous home, which resembles a former cathedral gone to seed, the head of the crucifix replaced with an electronic eye. His job is crunching numbers or “entities” for Mancom Industries, a company whose shadowy head (Matt Damon) wants Qohen to solve the zero theorem, proving once and for all (with numbers) that life is indeed meaningless — a black hole, a big zero.
More comic and hopeful than Gilliam’s early masterpiece Brazil (1986) with which it shares notable thematic similarities (the individual vs. technocracy, fantasy vs. reality), The Zero Theorem is about redemption for poor alienated Qohen, his savior arriving in the form of apparently ditzy Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), the star of an online porn site. As in most Gilliam films, the protagonist must strip away one illusion after another if he is to find the truth, and for Qohen Leth (his last name suggests the river of forgetfulness), the girl behind the girl on the computer screen just might be it.
Awash in dazzling colors and stunning set designs worthy of the Monty Python illustrator, the cryptic nature of The Zero Theorem and its array of odd characters may put off most viewers, but Gilliam fans (you know who you are!) should check it out. For those same devoted fans, more good news: The word is that the writer/director is in preproduction (again!) on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, this time with John Hurt as the Man of La Mancha.
Quite by accident, I segued from watching The Zero Theorem to viewing a Lithuanian film, also new to home video, called Vanishing Waves. Like Gilliam’s film, Vanishing Waves uses science-fiction to explore the parameters of identity and love, but with a decidedly different tone and approach.
The plot concerns a scientist’s attempt to tap into the neural circuitry of a comatose female patient, but when he does, he finds far more than he expected. An odd erotic love story of sorts, Vanishing Waves is even more cerebral than Zero Theorem, but definitely worth a look for fans (you know who you are!) of Stanislaw Lem, the 1989 film Altered States, and Brainstorm (1983), Natalie Wood’s last movie.