The constant pleasure of a new Terry Gilliam film is how he insists on giving his audience something they’ve never seen before. Most movies, you know where they’re taking you, the characters and story have a familiar quality to them and the filmmaking is a comfortable fit for easy-to-digest material. Most uninspired, forgettable movies function this way. Gilliam is not like most filmmakers. If there was an analogy I could think of, that could sum up his approach to cinema, it’d have to be the ringmaster of a circus, who also serves as the lion tamer. We watch as he cries out, “Gather ’round, one and all, boys and girls!” We then watch with fascination, dread and giddy anticipation as he, once again, sticks his arm deep into the throat of a hungry lion. This illustration can very well illustrate the success rate of his movies, some of which are masterpieces. The others, well…let’s just say the lion bit his arm off and won that day.
It can be argued that Gilliam sometimes bites his own arm off, that he never makes things easy on himself. Looking at the films he takes on, that may be true. No one who makes “Time Bandits,” “Brazil,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “The Fisher King,” “12 Monkeys,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Tideland,” “The Brothers Grimm,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and this movie is coasting on good will or not trying hard enough to make art. Yes, Gilliam’s films are sometimes overstuffed, self consciously weird and “not for everyone,” but who cares? Anyone who dislikes his flamboyant approach to film can find another, comparatively duller, easier-to-digest movies at their disposal. For those who want to see something they’ve never seen before, well then, step right up, boys and girls, the maestro has returned.
“The Zero Theorem” takes place in a world that could be called futuristic but, sadly, seems only a few years removed from the present. An office worker named Qohen (played by Christoph Waltz) is assigned by his superior (David Thewlis) to take on the Zero Theorem, a formula that, if solved, could explain no less than the meaning of life. Qohen’s already lonely life is now made even more isolated, as he works on the theorem at home, with only the arrival of unusual visitors interrupting him. Among the house crashers are Bainsley (MelanieThierry), an attractive party girl who takes a liking to him, and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the computer genius, teenage son of his boss. The closer Qohen gets to solving the theory, the more his fantasies and real life begin to merge, as notions of love and escape stir his soul for the first time.
Here is Gilliam directly returning to the themes of his monumental, still career-best “Brazil,” but in a modernized way. As a commentary on how we’re slaves to the internet, have jobs at office cubicles, requiring technical proficiency no different from playing video games, and are overly reliant on technology, it’s utterly on target. The cautionary note in this allegory finds a pulse at the center of its crazy heart.
Gilliam sometimes lays it on too thick and, while the message is clear, he over-populates the narrative with too many needless supporting characters. Also, the busy art direction is busy, though occasionally cluttered.
A few overdone bits teeter between being a misfire or terrible, with Tilda Swinton rapping the ultimate low point. The ending is perhaps too reminiscent of “Brazil,” though even stranger and more open to interpretation (if no less stunning in its visual poetry).
Waltz’s character grew on me and so did the film. Gilliam’s melding of big ideas, spectacular imagery and fiendish humor isn’t to be missed. The love story connects movingly and the way imagery illuminates Qohen’s feelings of inner torment (like the lovers hurtling into a black hole) is breathtaking.
The core supporting cast helps us into the story, which is as typically dense and playfully challenging in that Gilliam-esqe way. Thewlis, Swinton, Thierry and a funny Matt Damon give vivid turns. “The Zero Theorem” is better than all of Gilliam’s recent works, save for “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” For a visual trip that will dance in your mind for days, “The Zero Theorem” is another gift to filmgoers from Gilliam, one of cinema’s reigning ringmasters.