The Zero Theorem

Year: 2013
Production Co: Voltage Pictures
Director: Terry Gilliam
Producer: Nicholas Chartier/Dean Zanuck
Writer: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton, Peter Stormare, Ben Wishaw, Lily Cole, Rupert Friend

Saying you don't get (or like) Terry Gilliam's films among cine-literate company is a bit like saying slavery was a pretty good idea.

But often a non-fan is the best person to ask whether his movies are any good. His fanbase is small, but it's so devoted that if he ever made a truly terrible movie they'd just shift nervously and not really look you in the eye when you asked them if they liked it.

There's little doubt he's an incredible visual stylist, but at his most extreme many of his narratives are lost under all the colour, glitter, wacky angles and performance tics.

So while it's completely relative to say a filmmaker like Gilliam is back 'on form', Zero Theorem is a lot more cohesive than the messy, apparently-first-draft approach taken in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus.

It's a similar meta-future we've seen from Gilliam before in Brazil, a place where corporate power is all encompassing and unquestioned. The forces that shape the lives of worker bees like Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) are so impersonal they're made literal when you discover that every time someone who works at his company Mancom mentions 'management', they're actually talking about the enigmatic boss whose name is literally Management (Matt Damon).

But Qohen wants nothing to do with Management, his over-friendly supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) or child prodigy Bob (Lucas Hedges), the kid who works at the neural net which crunches all the data Mancom employees produce and collect.

It's never made very clear what Mancom does, but the antisocial, nervous Qohen is on a campaign to be allowed to work from home so he doesn't have to deal with people at all. He refers to himself as 'we' like he's Gollum, scratches itches until they bleed, is convinced he's dying and almost turns inside out to get away from people when they talk to him.

But Management decides to grant Qohen his wish if he works on the Zero Theorem. Having mentally broken many workers before him, the theorem is the idea that everything in life and everything we all do actually adds up to nothing. Qohen's job is to collect and process the data to prove the theorem mathematically, but it doesn't give him the peace he hopes for.

While he works and tries to keep to himself, Qohen's life is invaded. His first interloper is the pretty, perky and endlessly friendly neighbour Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who he meets at a party he doesn't want to be at. The other is Bob from the neural net, who turns out to be Management's own son and is assigned to help Qohen with the Theorem.

In a mainstream rom-com you'd see from a mile away that Qohen will gradually learn what it means to be alive as he befriends the boy and falls in love with the woman. That happens here too, but it's all done with such visual verve and mind-bending plotting it's almost a surprise.

It's not Gilliam's most original film and he revisits some old themes – particularly from Brazil. Qohen, Bainsley and the others live in a wholly impersonal world where ubiquitous (and often ridiculous) technology has disconnected us from each other, where institutional power is as all-pervading as it is nonsensical (bureaucracy as the new God) and how simultaneously fragile and transforming romance can be in the face of it.

It also invites repeats viewings – there's so much going on in the frame about personalised advertising, industrial technology and what humans are destined to become you'll never take it all in at once.

Waltz doesn't have to do much but cringe and weasel, Thierry is like a doll that's both sexy and sparkily childlike at the same time, and when she's not there Hedges as Qohen's young friend Bob provides the performance energy. The rest of the energy is all Gilliam, his camera wheeling around riots of coloura and movement and never settling on anything unless it's at an oblique angle.

It's Gilliam doing what his fans love him for – whether you love it will depend on where you stand on his very distinctive style.

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