Terry Gilliam is a stylized director, and as a result audiences often find his films either imaginative or dull. After watching The Zero Theorem, I’ve realized that I’m in the second camp. While The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)—my first Gilliam outing besides that movie about gold cups—is visually stunning and charming, I find that style is over-represented to cover up the shallowness of the questions and plot elements in the script. The Zero Theorem follows suit.
Tell me you haven’t heard this story before: a very serious man can’t function because he doesn’t see a point to life. He’s crippled by the sense that there is a deeper meaning to the universe. Fortunately, a physically attractive women—who is almost always scantily clad only because she’s meant to be a contrast, guys, seriously—is all about living and having fun. He broods while she acts weirdly childlike, and he must learn to abandon his profound introspection so that he can live like the rest of us.
The Zero Theorem does complicate some of these elements, but the basic story is tired. Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) reflects that dreaded trope whose name we do not speak, and Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is the protagonist of every story written by libertarian college kids in fiction writing courses. While the end of Bainsley’s arc and the last third of the movie descend into Gilliam-esque madness and grandeur, ultimately Bainsley and Leth cannot escape their cliche nature. Neither is sufficiently unique or nuanced, despite Thierry and Waltz’s best efforts.
Further, the philosophizing is old hat even to me, and I barely even know who Kant and Descartes are. What’s the meaning of our existence(s)? What if everything means nothing because the universe will go out the way it came in? Maybe these are questions that deserve to be probed further, but The Zero Theorem seems more interested in its aesthetic than adding to the conversation. While the notion of monetizing the disorder of our nihilism is intriguing, it doesn’t cover the fact that there are no philosophical revelations here.
In defense of The Zero Theorem, though, the aesthetic captures why people love Gilliam. His ability to build a universe in the frame is impeccable, and his attention to detail serves as a stark contrast to the featureless script. Everything reflects Gilliam’s care and efficiency in this regard. One example: when Qohen first leaves his apartment, a homeless man shouts, “Go home!” Immediately we realize that Qohen lives in an impoverished area, that class struggles are still an issue, and that Qohen isn’t welcome even in his own home. The universe and themes are developed carefully and in tandem.
Further, the omnipresence of advertisements and labyrinthine locales reveals Zero Theorem‘s placement at the intersection of Kafka, Orwell, and Huxley, which has always been Gilliam’s jam. While those of you who have seen Brazil (1985) might find the style and pacing all too familiar, Gilliam does update his dystopia to reflect a distinctly modern viewpoint, with concerns about our lack of human interaction and a punk-ass tech kid named Bob (Lucas Hedges).
The positives of Zero Theorem, though, only make the movie more confusing. The characters might be walking tropes, but you can feel a heart at the center of each of them, and the secondary characters often cover up the shortcomings in the primary ones. The world that Gilliam creates feels alive. The questions he asks are, if nothing else, ambitious.
So why is this movie so dull, if it has so much? If I were to guess, I would say it’s that Gilliam has many strengths and some weaknesses that are mixed in with a generally odd approach to filmmaking. If the weaknesses bother you more than the strengths please you, you’re unlikely to enjoy a Terry Gilliam movie. Otherwise, he will remain a director that polarizes, and The Zero Theorem continues his legacy.