blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Zero Theorem (2013, Terry Gilliam)

I had been planning on opening this post about The MacGuffin—sorry, I mean The Zero Theorem—with a quip about how it’s faster to just Google “Terry Gilliam Brexit” than to watch the movie but Gilliam’s actually not one of the bad Pythons on Brexit. So I had to fall back to The MacGuffin quip.

Zero Theorem’s an interminable 107 minutes ruminating on the human condition through the eyes of Christoph Waltz’s dystopian future worker-bee. Waltz “crunches entities,” which are like little AI equations or something. It doesn’t make sense and doesn’t have to make sense. Pat Rushin’s script is terrible, but also, there’s a left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. We watch Waltz do his work, which is done with a juiced-up video game controller, and the interface is very “this is a Unix system, I know this,” until it’s clear it’s just a CGI block animation with some equations written on the blocks. So he’s a gamer, only Waltz clearly wasn’t seeing these video animations because he might’ve done something to move along with the video.

It gets worse later on when Waltz gets a teen sidekick, played by Lucas Hedges. Hedges will wrest control of the game—sorry, entity cruncher—from Waltz; only the CGI won’t change at all. In fact, they just more boldly reuse the same animations from before when Hedges is doing it. So Waltz’s work doesn’t matter because the visual representation is nonsense but also because it doesn’t make any sense but also because it relates to the Zero Theorem, which is just a MacGuffin.

The movie’s layers of pointless stacked.

About the only good thing in Theorem is David Thewlis, who occasionally stops by as Waltz’s boss. Everyone in Theorem is a thin caricature, usually with some exaggerated costume design to imply depth, but Thewlis is the only one with enough costume oddities to get anything out of it. He’s got a terrible toupee, but he also enjoys the potential for dress up. It’s nearly a character.

It’s not, but nearly.

And better than anyone else.

Hedges has a lousy part but is also bad. Waltz is fine. He trusts director Gilliam and gives it his all. Gilliam doesn’t deliver and will occasionally embarrass Waltz to no end, but Waltz’s loyalty doesn’t waver. I guess he gets a gold star.

The main characters are Waltz, Hedges, and Mélanie Thierry. Thierry is the virtual sex worker—virtual sex; she’s real, the sex isn’t—with a heart of gold who falls for Waltz, even though there’s a pronounced age difference. The age difference comes up when Waltz’s computer psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton in another Tilda Swinton cameo—this time, she raps… yawn) points it out, so they turn off the computer. Thierry’s at least not a teenager.

She’s also awful.

It’s not her fault; it’s just her performance is she isn’t a native English speaker, and so has an awkward accent. Plus, she gets scantily clad and then naked (Waltz also gets naked, though the camera doesn’t linger in the same ways). What more do you want from a part?

Besides the script, Zero’s problem is the budget. Gilliam can’t make hash out of a low budget, instead utilizing cheap (and bad) CGI. He’s also desperate enough to reference some of his previous movies directly (did he forget he didn’t make Blade Runner though?). But it’s not just the CGI. Gilliam doesn’t get any help from his crew.

David Warren’s production design is the most obvious detriment. It’s all very early 2010s—Warren’s convinced the future is young people filming themselves on iPads. Aren’t they terrible? The young people, not the iPads. Waltz just can’t understand them but will eventually work his redemption arc by changing himself (not really, but the script says they have to say the lines, so they do) to fit Hedges’s requests.

Most of the movie takes place in Waltz’s home, an old church. So lots of unlikely future tech and religious imagery. Sure, let’s try that one again.

Also working against the film are cinematographer Nicola Pecorini and composer George Fenton. Fenton’s just bland and repetitive, while Pecorini’s bland, repetitive, and downright bad at a lot of the lighting. The composite shots are particularly dreadful.

The film doesn’t exactly have any moments, but there are times when Waltz gets some traction out of nothing.

Oh, I forgot. Matt Damon’s the big boss. At times even he seems to know he’s in a lousy movie.

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