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Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a computer genius plagued with existential angst. Eccentric and reclusive, he lives in a burnt-out church, toiling on a top-secret project personally assigned by Management (Matt Damon) – to discover the meaning of life. If there is one. (From Well Go USA’s official synopsis)

 Zero Theorem
Many fans and critics would probably agree that master misfit moviemaker Terry Gilliam peaked with his dystopian love story Brazil (1985). He has made good and interesting movies since – I imagine plenty of people prefer the likes of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), The Fisher King (1991), or 12 Monkeys (1995) – but years of combating the studio system has left his more recent filmography mired in incomplete thoughts and compromised visions. Following his half-baked work for hire on The Brothers Grimm (2005) and the critical disdain for his more personal independent production, Tideland (also 2005), Gilliam started revisiting surrealistic fairytales with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). It was only a matter of time before he’d return to the Kafkaesque themes and Orwellian nightmares of Brazil. Zero Theorem, his first film in three years (it wasn’t released for another year after that and was originally planned as far back as 2009), is definitely a companion piece to Gilliam’s peak movie – from its satire of labyrinthine bureaucracy and abstract corporate concepts to the gleeful mistreatment of its central character. The initial excitement that Gilliam is returning to the themes that made him a great filmmaker is tempered by the knowledge that he may be too far removed from his time as a great filmmaker to recapture that glory.

The Brazil comparisons are mitigated somewhat by the fact that Gilliam didn’t write Zero Theorem. That duty fell to first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin. Gilliam’s creative voice is powerful enough to influence any screenplay, as evident in his better‘for hire’ features ( The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys in particular) and Rushin’s story clearly appeals to his sensibilities and appears to have been altered to fit the Brazil template. The supporting character dialogue mixes piles of incidental information with sometimes necessary (though usually clumsy) exposition. Qohen – the audience surrogate – is assaulted by meaningless words that spin the already meager first act worth of plot into a wall of noise. This is flavoured by comedic references to the future state of current pop-culture that are mostly embarrassing (people lost money in the ‘Facebook crash,’ images of Jesus are replaced with images of John Lennon, and CSNBC’s name has changed to DuMBC), painting Rushin and Gilliam as out of touch and desperately grasping for relevance. In fact, most of the film’s humour has a distinct ‘dad joke’ quality.

 Zero Theorem
Fortunately, the comedy is put aside and the narrative comes together as the second act rolls around and Gilliam finally starts focusing on Qohen’s relationship with Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), the virtual hooker with a heart of gold, and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of Management who is sent to keep him focused. The editing processes are still sometimes obnoxious, recalling the unfocused, episodic cutting of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Zero Theorem finally finds its footing halfway through, instead of burning itself out ( Fear and Loathing becomes an endurance test). Despite scatter-shooting the narrative between two relationships that ultimately serve the same (or at least very similar) purpose and presents derivative emotional themes, Gilliam settles into a more fixed groove and eventually achieves something resembling a poignant (if incomplete) finale.

With purpose restored, I was able to notice the more interesting ways Brazil and Zero Theorem’s main characters mirror each other. Sam Lowry (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) and Qohen are both cogs with little control over their environments, but Sam’s hopeless romanticism is exploited to turn him into a perpetual victim. His frustration grows, while Qohen’s has already reached a fever pitch, thanks in large part to his extreme neurosis (the best scenes in the movie involve Tilda Swinton as a computer-operated psychiatrist designed only to identify his pathology, not treat it), which keeps him at arm’s length from the everyone and every situation. Brazil presents a situation where Sam simply cannot survive – the entire world is against his happiness. Zero Theorem surrounds Qohen with a similarly revolting social situation, but his world is also populated with people that want to help him. The differences between the characters are best illustrated by their relationships with each film’s female protagonist. Sam, who sees Jill (Kim Greist) in his dreams and seeks her attention at every turn, has his efforts gridlocked by tragic coincidence and evil bureaucracy. In contrast, Bainsley is hired by Qohen’s employers as a means to control his emotions. She invites him to share ‘dreams’ with her (in this case a virtual reality program, not an organic dream) and, after Management separates them, she begs him to leave the city with her. In the end, Qohen’s personality disorders keep him from a happy life with her, not the whims of a banal fate.
 
 Zero Theorem
Visually, Gilliam doesn’t really recreate the hyper-baroque, metallic, and dusty sorrow of Brazil (and some of his other ‘80s movies). The Zero Theorem universe is certainly informed by the mechanical melancholy of his earlier films – including Time Bandits (1981) and 12 Monkeys – but, instead of being suffocated only by analogue machinery, like wires, tubes, and cold, metal structures, Qohen’s world is littered with video screens and baked in neon lighting. The digital pollution is contrasted with the sorrowful, filthy antiquity of Qohen’s cathedral home, creating an appropriately maddening aesthetic contradiction. These images of poisonous modernity support the film’s already heavy-handed anti-materialist themes – themes found stewing in just about every film in the director’s catalogue. Heavy-handed is practically Gilliam’s middle name, of course, but much of this maddeningly busy production design is hideous enough to put one’s teeth on edge. I suppose that was the point, but, when mixed with excessive Dutch angles and fisheye framing, I wonder if perhaps he was a bit too successful.

 Zero Theorem

Video


Zero Theorem was shot 35mm and is presented in 1.77:1 (maybe 1.75:1?), 1080p HD video on this Blu-ray disc. Gilliam and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (who has worked with the director on and off since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) used Maxivision formats and, because the director was reportedly frustrated by the home video aspect ratio of Tideland (it was 1.77:1 on DVD, but was supposed to be closer to 2.10:1), he apparently insisted that the entire frame appeared on the Blu-ray. Without any 16x9 cropping, the corners appear rounded, literally revealing all of the frame. This is definitely unusually, but adds a bit more vintage format appeal to the imagery. The grain levels are thick and pulsy in an obviously intended fashion. This sometimes leads to minor edge enhancement and banding, but both appear natural, given the fact that the filmmakers are embracing film-based artefacts elsewhere. As mentioned in the feature section of this review, Zero Theorem is designed around aesthetic contradictions that contrast super-saturated neon streets with the pale, smoky, dark, and dilapidated interiors of Qohen’s home (and other similar sets). The brighter world is flecked with hotspots, crushed shadows, and searing gels, while the darker interiors are cleaner with more complex patterns and sharper hue qualities. The variations in image types are further delineated by the grain and softer colour qualities of the Maxivision stock are set up against super-sharp digital effects. A third image type comes into play whenever Qohen enters virtual reality to interact with Bainsley. These scenes are softer, smoother, and slathered in golds and teals.

 Zero Theorem

Audio


Zero Theorem is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The mix alternates between silent and dynamic environments in order to further press the contrasting environments. Either way, truly aggressive sound is rare. Even the noisier outdoor sets and the roar of a reoccurring black hole nightmare are relatively soft in terms of volume range. Still, there is a myriad of successful directional enhancements, including phones ringing to the right of the screen, future cars zipping through the rear speakers, and the robotic voices of a dying computer spinning around the room. The musical is supplied by industry workhorse George Fenton, who divides the score into mechanical, electronic tones and traditional string motifs that are almost ironically romantic. The music flows over just about every sequence in the film in one form or another and sounds plenty rich. The most unsettling aural aspect is Mélanie Thierry’s voice creeping throughout the back channels during the beginning of the final credit roll. Keep an ear out for it.

Extras


  • Behind-the-scenes featurette (18:30: HD) – An EPK sales piece that includes cast and crew interviews and brief snippets of on-set footage.
  • The Visual Effects of Crunching the Entities (6:40, HD) – On designing and producing the film’s special effects.
  • The Costumes (29:30, HD) – A surprisingly extensive look at the film’s costume design.
  • The Sets (18:20, HD) – Concerning set design and construction.


 Zero Theorem

Overall


Zero Theorem falls in line with most of Terry Gilliam’s more recent films – it’s a frustrating gnarl of a movie that occasionally reminds its audience of what made the director so special all those decades ago. I enjoyed the second half, but fear that I’m overlooking a lack of cohesion, because I want to like a Terry Gilliam movie again. Ultimately, he fails to connect the dots visually or emotionally. Well Go’s Blu-ray is solid, including an unusually framed 1080p transfer, a subtle DTS-MA HD soundtrack, and some decent behind-the-scenes featurettes.

* Last minute addition: As I was editing this today, I happened to watch the second episode of the first season of Black Mirror, Fifteen Million Merits. Though the episode and Zero Theorem don’t share many specific plot points, they share a number of themes. The episode’s writers (Charlie Brooker & Konnie Huq) and director (Euros Lyn) achieve so much more beautiful poignancy than Gilliam that I’m beginning to regret some of the nicer things I said in the review. I recommend Zero Theorem’s fans and critics take the time to make the comparison.

 Zero Theorem
** Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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