LIFF 2013 Review – The Zero Theorem


The Zero Theorem will most likely be my film of 2013 and possibly 2014. I was luckily enough to catch the premiere at the 2013 London Film Festival. It’s Terry Gilliam’s first feature in 4 years, he made 2 shorts in the mean time and directed his first opera an adaptation of Faust. It’s a script Terry Gilliam had been knocking around with for a while, the newcomer Pat Rushin who was a great fan of Gilliam’s work wrote it for him. Billy Bob Thornton was going to play the main character Qohen originally. Christoph Waltz eventually replaced Billy Bob. Christoph Waltz was hot off his 2 Oscar winning collaborations with Quentin Tarantino.

The film’s early reviews have compared it both favourably and unfavourably to Gilliams’ magnum opus Brazil. The comparisons are certainly justified even though The Zero Theorem is on a much smaller scale. Brazil and this new one both are really about the times the films were made (like most good sci-fi). Brazil is about the bureaucracy of fascism while The Zero Theorem is about how technology oppresses people.

The film very much hinges on the character of Qohen Leth (Waltz), who is having an existential crisis, he is waiting for a phone call to give him the meaning of life. He is working for Manageman, a Big Brother esq. boss (Matt Damon). He is pushing data but really wants to work at home and is eventually granted his request but on one condition he works on The Zero Theorem. The Theorem is basically a way to prove everyone is pointless which is of course suited to his own thinking. He is very much a hermit in his own electronic world; he is plugged in constantly into his computer. He seeks ultimate happiness but he can’t relate to other people, sort of like a self imposed form of Aspergers.

Qohen’s superior played by David Thewlis in a hilarious wig one night decides to give him a call girl Bainsley (Mélanie Theirry). She constantly tries to seduce him to no avail until he eventually is won over by her. They engage in a virtual relationship in what is kind of like The Matrix for lonely men. Qohen is having trouble cracking The Zero Theorem so Management enlists his son Bob (who calls everyone Bob) to help him. Qohen is continuously distracted and what is real and what isn’t seems to merge.

Many critics have cited it as a return to form for Terry Gilliam but the problem is Terry has never been off form. Tideland is hands down the single most underrated film of the 21st century and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is vintage Gilliam. The Zero Theorem harks back however to the more noir inflected visions of future he showed us in Brazil and 12 Monkeys. It’s depiction of the future is different from those cause it’s extremely colourful and everyone seems to be having a good time except for it’s lead character Qohen.

The film like Brazil is extremely satirical. One of the funniest scenes is the idea of the silent disco where everyone is on their ipod or ipad and listening to their tunes on headphones. Gilliam claimed he didn’t know was a reality till after he finished shooting. The film has a wonderful interchange between Thewlis and Waltz about why Thewlis failed at The Zero Theorem and become a supervisor due to his incompetence. It’s a classic Gilliam jab at bureaucracy.

The Zero Theorem as usual with Gilliam’s work features fantastic performances. Christoph Waltz in reality should get his 3rd Oscar nominated for his maniac performance as Qohen but of course he won’t. It’s such a different role and really shows Waltz’s acting chops. Tilda Swinton has an extended cameo as a computer shrink and as usual is great. There are cameos from Ben Whishaw, Peter Stormare, Rupert Friend, Robin Williams as well.

It looks like it was made for something like $40,000,000 even though it was something around 10 to 15 mark. This is due to the simple fact Gilliam isn’t getting the money he use too, a fact he admits in the post-screening Q&A. The design from every compartment is outstanding and the film should be seen just for that never mind all the other factors. It definitely has that Gilliam Hamster Factory in every single shot.

Overall it’s a spellbinding piece of political science fiction in where there isn’t enough sadly. It asks meaningful questions about the meaning of life, the role of technology in the world in both good and bad ways, Waltz is magnificent. It’s nice to see Gilliam is still making such imaginative films and I certainly giggled with awe from the first frame to the last.


Ian Schultz

Rating: 15
Release Date:
14 October 2013 (LIFF)
Terry Gilliam
Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis , Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw

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