Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Produced by: Nicolas Chartier
Screenplay by: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz
Music by: George Fenton
Cinematography by: Nicola Pecorini
Editing by: Mick Audsley
Studio(s): MediaPro Studios
The Zanuck Company
Distributed by: Stage 6 Films (United Kingdom)
Amplify (United States)
Release date(s): September 2, 2013 (Venice Film Festival, premiere)
March 14, 2014 (United Kingdom)
August 19, 2014 (United States, VOD)
September 19, 2014 (United States, limited)
Running time: 106 minutes
Country(s): United Kingdom
Production budget: $8.5-13.5 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $770, 706
Alrighty, so, during the time that I published my review for Birdman, I went to see two films (Big Eyes and The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies) to get me kickstarted ahead for the month of January. However, I do still have four reviews to get out, including this one, before I seal the deal with the November-December period. I have to say as well (spoiler alert) that among these four reviews, two will be published for films that I deem to be masterpieces. So far this year, only Gone Girl has entered the upper-upper echelon of films, but during this period I saw two more thoroughly remarkable films that I feel are among the best of 2014. Usually, I find that on average there are about five outright masterpieces for any given year at the movies (last year, they were Gravity, The Act Of Killing, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, 12 Years A Slave and Rush), so, with only three thus far, I reckon there's at least a couple more to be seen. So, on that note of anticipation, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted!
Today's film up for review is The Zero Theorem, the latest movie from Terry Gilliam. For those of you who don't know, I'm a fan of Terry Gilliam, from his time with the Monty Python gang to his own back catalogue as a feature filmmaker. Even though I think some of his work has flaws, he has always been someone with a terrific imagination, and there are not many artists who realise their diegeses so fully. The only contemporary filmmakers who come to mind off the top of my head are Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott in conjuring up such a fully atmospheric and believable film world. In that regard, particularly in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy, you can certainly see the influence of Gilliam. This film has been in development and was due to begin production back in 2009 with Richard D. Zanuck producing, first starring Ewan McGregor then Billy Bob Thornton in the lead role, and also featuring Al Pacino and Jessica Biel, until the untimely death of Heath Ledger meant that that Gilliam had to pull out to finish The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. After both McGregor and Thornton dropped out of the lead role, Christoph Waltz took the part and Dean Zanuck took over after his father's death as producer, The Zero Theorem finally got into production at the end of 2012. So, as you can see, much like the majority of Gilliam's production histories, nothing is ever easy, and it is a literal battle to get a movie to the big screen. This latest film first got attention back in 2013, when Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News saw it several months before its release. declaring it Gilliam's best film since Brazil, and that Christopher Waltz deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Actor, stating also that he hoped the final version released was the one he saw, for "there's not a frame needing to be lost." Now, while Knowles has been know, if you'll excuse the expression, to go off on one at times when he gets excited about a film, I still count that as high praise. The story follows Qohen Leth (Waltz), a reclusive computer programmer assigned to "crunch entities" working for a company called Mancom who is suffering from existential angst. After attending a party held by his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), at which he also meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) he gets to speak with Management (Matt Damon) about his concerns that he would be more productive working at home, which would also free up more time for him to wait for his call. Despite Management concluding that he is insane, his request is granted, and he is shown a supercomputer known as The Neural Net Mancive, which contains all the entities crunched by the workers for the company. Qohen is assigned to order this data so as solve the eponymous Zero Theorem, a mathematical formula which may or may not determine the meaning of life. Got that? Good!
Starting off with the good regarding The Zero Theorem, as I mentioned, what Gilliam usually brings to the table is a whole lot of imagination, and I have to say there is a lot of it present in this film. Despite not having the kind of budgets that he used to have on his picture (because as he frankly admits, no studio wants to give him the money!), it hasn't limited or hindered the level of detail that has been put in realising this world. The production design on the film, done by Dave Warren, is consistently of the highest standard, so that, even though some of the sets are small and obviously corners are being cut with the majority of the film being based in them, has such intricacy that it's one of the few movies that would invite and worthily receive one's attention on that aspect alone. It's the kind of thing that is perfectly catered for the DVD audience who may want to look at sketches and features on this feature of the film. It's unusual to see so much attention being paid to little things. Over and above the visual value in and of itself, it serves an aesthetic purpose, emphasising some of the savage satire that the film has to offer. Speaking of highlighting, the film is also very well shot by Nicola Pecorini, who does a lot to shine a light on these features. Also, from a technical standpoint the film is a wonder. Shot in Maxivision with a 1:1.85 aspect ratio, the film was done this way with 16:9 matting in mind, so that no matter how you view the film, be it on your computer, via project, phone, tablet, you will be able to see the image as it should be. Furthermore, the round edges of the frame corners, which Gilliam has said he likes due it's being reminiscent of 1920s projectors not being fitted to hide the camera gate's edges, creates a subtle distortion of our perception of space. Not only is that handy, given the small sets and modest budget, but it also adds to the sense of paranoia. That's probably the best thing that is done in Pat Rushin's script, creating a mistrustful atmosphere where we are constantly questioning what is happening. We see this world that Qohen Leth inhabits to be completely absurd, and while it we may laugh some of this, it is also quite intimidating. This absurdity is further enforced in the inherent ridiculousness of central concept and the revelations that later come with it during the course of the film. As I said earlier in relation to the production design, Rushin's script has got a lot of little things, ideas which give the film a real flavour, such as Qohen's bickering with his AI therapist Dr. Shrink-ROM (played in a cameo by Tilda Swinton) and the various advertisements which bombard our protagonist. Speaking of whom, Christoph Waltz gives a really strong central performance as Qohen Leth. It's interesting seeing Waltz play an eccentric spin on the everyman, for if anything a lot of the time he's quite the opposite. When Waltz is onscreen, he's usually the guy that everyone looks at, with the magnetic presence, being, often at the same time charming and terrifying, whereas here he shows a completely different side. His Qohen Leth is a quiet, unassuming shy man quite content at a party to blend in with the wallpaper, and every grimace and pause of Waltz' as David Thewlis' buoyant Joby leads him enthusiastically through his house speaks volumes. Also, he manages to engage our sympathy with his actions sweating profusely like Karl Malden when feeling awkward, as does Waltz' natural ear for how dialogue should sound plays a part. We notice that the result of all his eccentricities (such as referring to himself as "we") are the result of deeply-embedded insecurities and trauma at the potential meaninglessness of life. Melanie Thierry is also good in the part of Bainsley, but the best part in the supporting cast belong to Lucas Hedges, who plays computer whizkid and Management's son Bob. Notwithstanding his resemblance to onscreen father Matt Damon, Hedges is a natural when it comes to the fast, eloquent and often four-mouthed delivery of his dialogue, making him a formidable opposite and tete a tete partner for Waltz's Qohen. Also, much like Qohen, his Bob, while confident in his abilities, almost to a fault, Hedges also convincingly gets across Bob's own doubts and troubles, making this more than just a disposable 'annoying kid who knows better than the adults' trope character. The final thing I'd like to praise is director Terry Gilliam. Simply getting The Zero Theorem to the big screen was a task in itself, but to see that, even with flaws (which I will get to) it is still a lucid, engaging, thematically rich and intelligent science-fiction film, that is an achievement above and beyond the abilities of many others. In the hands of a poor journeyman, this could have been disastrous, but Gilliam manages to do something relatively interesting with the material.
Now, as I mentioned there, The Zero Theorem, while certainly admirable for it's intelligence, satirical qualities and willingness to pose existential questions towards the audience, has a number of flaws which deny it from being the great movie that it perhaps could have been. The first thing I have to say that bothered were certain aspects of Pat Rushin's script. I think Rushin's script nailed the paranoid atmosphere rather well, but ultimately, even with the dressings and production design one would expect from a Gilliam film, it can't hide the fact that the story itself isn't particularly original and is a tad bit predictable. It might be well done, but how many times have we seen protagonists at a crossroads or in a state of stasis, waiting to find some meaning in their lives? It seems be almost one of the easiest starter points for screenwriters, and to be honest, while I love existentialism (hell, I'm reading another Dostoyevsky right now, for goodness sake!), I would like to see something different being done with it. You are able to guess much of where the plot goes a mile away. What I would love to see personally is for a young debutant filmmaker to go completely left-of-field and make something like Robert Harmon's 1986 film The Hitcher, an existentialist piece firmly entrenched in b-movie/horror genre trappings. I liked The Zero Theorem, but Gilliam feels like he is doing a low-budget retread, recycling through much of the same stuff that we saw in Brazil, a superior film with an edgier screenplay and made on a much grander scale. Another thing that bothered me to a lesser extent was the amount of Dutch angles that the film uses. Don't get me wrong, I know that is almost a Gilliam trademark, and I understand their aesthetic purpose, to represent the confusion of his characters, but I don't think it's necessary, especially with the Maxivision format and 1:1.85 aspect ratio. These already create a sort-of fisheye lens effect of distortion, and as such the Dutch angles overdo that aspect of stylisation a bit. Finally, while I think that George Fenton's theme for Qohen Leth is a beautiful piece (I would have been content listening to variation's on that theme for the running time), I found myself less moved by the rest of the score. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad score per se, but to me it the music should be the film's emotional heartbeat and pulse, and here at times it felt like more of an intrusion. I mean, in that party scene, with the music and people there looking like something that fell out of The Mighty Boosh, I was more in sync with poor Qohen Leth, and found myself wanting him to walk out the door, when of course we're meant to feel like "aw come on, man, stay." As I said, at times more intrusion than pulse.
So, even though I found Pat Rushin's screenplay to be problematically unoriginal, the overuse of Dutch angles to be overkill and George Fenton's score to be at times intrusive, my overall conclusion on The Zero Theorem is positive. If you were to describe to me a film with a premise similar to this, I'd recommend either one of two earlier Gilliam films, 1985's Brazil or the highly underrated 1995's 12 Monkeys, but it doesn't the fact that this is still a good movie. There's a great lead performance from Christoph Waltz, who shows a completely different side to his acting palette as Qohen Leth, and strong support from Melanie Thierry and in particular Lucas Hedges. It's largely well-shot by Nicola Pecorini, and even with a modest budget maintains a consistently high level of production design. Finally, while I do think the plot surrounding it is same-old same-old, Terry Gilliam is still venturing to make films with a truly paranoid atmosphere of absurdity, questioning the status quo of the world around him while tacking the existential meaning of life. It's at times rather troubling, but still humorous and thought-provoking.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.7/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Cool (the heat is off in the house, after all!)