Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2014)


Qohen Leth's living room contains a mass of outdated computers held together by a chaotic mess of wires.  It's not an unusual image: wild jumbles of slightly outdated tech have become a sort of cliche in cyberpunk scifi films.  And it's certainly not an unfamiliar sight in Terry Gilliam movies, recalling, for example, the messes of ducts and wires that run through the apartments and office buildings of Brazil.  More than anything, this clutter seems an apt representation of Gilliam's mind, and of his movies.  It's often frustrating to track the themes of his stories, which always seem to be moving in six directions at once.  This can be off-putting at first, as when I first watched The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and was annoyed by how messy the plot was, how many things Gilliam had crammed in.  On subsequent viewings, I've come to feel like that mess is actually what makes Munchausen so interesting.

The Zero Theorem in particular offers a case study in the chaos of Gilliam's work.  The story concerns Qohen Leth, a familiar figure for readers of dystopian fiction: he's the individual in a society intent on turning everyone into useful tools.  Qohen works for a huge corporation run by a God-like figure played by Matt Damon.  His job is insatiably avaricious of Qohen's time and attention, but Qohen just wants to be at home waiting for a phone call that he believes is coming to explain his purpose in the universe.  When Qohen explains his circumstances to Management (the only name by which Damon's character is ever referred), Management tells him his call is a delusion, and puts him to work trying to solve the titular equation to prove that life is meaningless.  It could be a parable for the way the organized church convinces the faithful not to look for their own spiritual truth, or it could be about the failure of work to give life meaning in the information age.  It could, of course, be all these things and more, but I think the reason we don't really know is that Terry Gilliam isn't really interested in all that.

It seems likely that Gilliam was attracted to Pat Rushin's screenplay by what it suggested about the world that Qohen lives in, and bringing that world to life is clearly where Gilliam's passion lies.  He sees the world as constant distraction.  Pop-up videos follow pedestrians down the street, hawking ridiculous religions (The Church of Batman the Redeemer) and lifestyle brands (the street scenes immediately bring to mind the opening of Bladerunner, but amped up to oversaturation).  The monk-like Qohen seeks quiet and solitude, and even lives in an abandoned monastery.  Work bleeds into private life.  Qohen's work involves using a videogame console to move numbers around  on a computer, and when he begins working on the Theorem he does so by moving blocks with equations on them around in a sort of giant, 3-D Tetris (which, like a lot of things in this film, makes no sense but looks really cool).  The idea of seeking a refuge from the NOISENOISENOISE of the digital world is an appealing one, and Gilliam tells this story through the mise en scene while Rushin is telling his story through action and dialogue.  And it's not like these two visions are at odds with each other.  They match up nicely, and would seem to support each other, but Gilliam just doesn't seem interested  in solving the equation.

The Zero Theorem is no Brazil, but at least it's not Brazil Reloaded.  Rushin's script is very different from Brazil, although there are some parallels, but Gilliam seems to have wanted to revisit the dystopian idea from a different angle, addressing the ways in which the world (and it's nightmare shadow) have changed in the 30 years since.

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