Film 2019: The Zero Theorem


After his splendid trilogy of films in the Eighties, I tended to drift away from Terry Gilliam. I’d loved Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen so much that I couldn’t shift with Gilliam into the kind of films he next wanted to make. Only Twelve Monkeys was closest enough to what I wanted for me to relish it, though I never saw it in the cinema.

I didn’t even learn about The Zero Theorem until I wrote about Twelve Monkeys for Film 2018. It is, and it isn’t, supposed to be the third in a trilogy of films comprising Brazil and Twelve Monkeys and I bought it immediately to view when I came to the right point for Film 2019. This, like the other three film remaining of the first phase, is the first time I have watched it.

In that all three films depict a future society that is chaotic, confusing and deeply disturbing in how it has developed, The Zero Theorem sits well beside its supposed companions (Gilliam has suggested both that they are and aren’t a trilogy). Yet it differs from them in that the future society in which Qohen Leph (Christoph Waltz) is much more of a background element to Qohen’s neuroses, and more superficial in its contribution to his predicament.

Nor does Qohen have a purpose. Jonathan Pryce is in pursuit of his dream girl, who exists in real life, Bruce Willis is on a mission to find and foil the Twelve Monkeys, Qohen is a severely inhibited, multi-neurotic individual who is trying to solve the Zero Theorem because his employer has told him to. He has no personal stake in it. This immediately undermines any sense of meaning to the film, especially as the Zero Theorem is an attempt to find a mathematical proof to the proposition that life in meaningless.

Having total nihilism as your goal makes the film’s goal tendentious to say the least, and it removes a further layer of potential meaning for those members of the audience who, like myself, have no religious involvement in requiring a supervening level of existence and therefore a ‘purpose’ to life. I have long been content to believe that we exist because we exist, because we exist in a Universe that supports life, and not need to ask Why?, let alone require an answer.

To someone like me, the film then becomes a study of a clearly deeply disturbed man, with overt neuroses piled upon neuroses, whose ultimate desire is a complete delusion long before it’s spelled out as a complete delusion. Qohen, who shaves his head, wears black in a garish plastic colour society, refers to himself as plural, hates being touched, or eating or drinking anything with any taste, is waiting for a call to tell him what his purpose is in life: he’s self-evidently insane.

Qohen’s life is invaded by three people who it’s possible to see as attenuated echoes of Scrooge’s three Ghosts. First there is Joby (David Thewlis in an obviously and deliberately awful wig, channeling David Brent), his Supervisor, a former cruncher like Qohen, an awful intrusion into anyone’s life. Joby is the Past, his imbalance self-admittedly caused by the Zero Theorem. Yet he has pull and influence, getting Management (Matt Damon) to see Qohen and assign him to the project.

And Joby, who insists on calling Qohen Quinn, is responsible for introducing Qohen to Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). The bright, bubbly blonde is a sex therapist, at least in her private interactions with Qohen are concerned, though she’s later exposed as a web-stripper. She attaches herself to him, clears his home (an abandoned, burned-out church, symbolising Qohen as a Christ-figure who has escaped religion), and leaves him a VR suit which takes him to an idyllic tropical island beach enjoying a permanet sunset, where he has hair and she wears a bikini, and the two enjoy a degree of physical pleasure. Bainsley is the Present, an alternate Present that Qohen can have if he rejects his programming. She tries to tempt him away in real life, but he refuses.

By now, Qohen is undergoing Bob, the Future. Bob’s a teenage programmer, officially a summer intern, an annoying fifteen year old already bored with too many things and an ability to conceive of things being any way other than he wants them. Bob’s also Management’s son. He’s a teenage computer whizz multi-cubed, he’s the future that you want to reject because you know you’ll have no place in it. He’s assigned to help Qohen, until he falls ill and everything is shut down.

And that’s how the film ends. Qohen has his delusion over his call called out for a delusion. He loses the Zero Theorem because he’s proved it correct when Management wanted him to disprove it. Joby’s been sacked. He’s sent Bainsley away. Bob’s critically ill and unlikely to recover. Qohen destroys all his surveillance and its associated high tech but is still sucked into the Neural Network for Management to fire him. Hi last act is to fall into the black hole of his own subconscious.

This takes Qohen to the beach, alone. All there is of Bainsley is the salt-encrusted bikini top he pulled off her. He reaches out for the sun, juggles it, then sets it. In the darkness of the credits, we hear her voice calling him.

Perhaps in part because the underpinning of the film lies outside my private parameters, I don’t (yet?) find this film worth bracketing with my other Terry Gilliams. It’s more confused, without the ultimate coherence that comes from careful, absorbed watching, which is perhaps down to Gilliam having no official inputto the script. But it comes on another Sunday morning, as the clocks go forward and spring officially comes upon us, and I’ll watch it again, perhaps with better appreciation.

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