It is difficult to sum up the body of work of director Terry Gilliam in one word, but perhaps by default “erratic” would be the necessary adjective, in the subject matter he address, his approach to those themes, in the style and structure of his films, and the frequency of their appearance. It was 2009 when his last feature was released, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, brilliantly reconceived when Heath Ledger tragically died during production, his remaining scenes completed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as different manifestations of Ledger’s character, yet 2005 had seen two Gilliam productions released, both The Brothers Grimm, long held back for studio alterations, and the acclaimed Tideland.
The anticipated long wait for his next project may be lessened somewhat, for as he discussed his current film The Zero Theorem at its gala premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival on the evening of Thursday 27th February, Gilliam stated that with the majority of financing and other matters in place he is finalising arrangements to commence filming of his long delayed project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as early as the last week of this coming September: “Three of the legs are on the horse.”
With The Zero Theorem produced for only $8.5 million, one of the smallest budgets he has ever worked with, Gilliam explained that pre-production and principal photography took place far more swiftly than any of his previous projects, with the result that much of the film needed to be created as efficiently and economically as possible, for example Bucharest standing in for London in order to reduce costs, costumes created from plastic wrap bought by the kilo rather than the yard, but that does not mean the ideas of the project are in any way limited.
Opening with a stormy vortex rotating in space, consuming all that comes near it, it is the obsession of Quohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a man who sits alone, naked in the abandoned church which is his home, surrounded by ornate candelabras, modern gadgetry and an incongruous alarm clock, bombarded by ringing phones which demand his attention but tell him nothing. Inside his sanctuary of silence there is no intrusion from the madness of the world, but in his daily commute to work he is bombarded with advertising, ubiquitous and aggressive, pursuing him down the street (The Church of Batman the Redeemer!) while newsfeeds scroll across building facades (“Six inch gap in high speed rail filled with cream!” “Winter takes its toll on tall Afghan children!”).
In contrast to the usual Gilliam dystopia, this is a happier world of bright colours and cheerful consumerism, but still one with which Qohen cannot cope, and he begs permission from his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) for arrangements to be made so he may work from home in future. Attending a medical examination, he tells the panel (including Peter Stormare and bequiffed Ben Whishaw) that he is dying, but they counter that “dying people are rarely so productive,” and indeed he is Mancom’s most productive number cruncher.
After an encounter with the mysterious chameleon-like Management (Matt Damon resembling the last survivor of Metaluna from This Island Earth), Qohen is granted his wish, but is reassigned from the transfinite paradox project to the zero theorem, expected to process vast amounts of data under stressful deadlines with no hint given as to the ultimate aim of the work.
Most often alone yet always speaking of himself in the plural, Qohen’s only comfort is Barnsley (Mélanie Thierry), a woman so flirtatious as to be almost confrontational, and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the overeager teenage prodigy son of Management. Uncomfortable around people, Qohen is more accustomed to only sharing his thoughts with his therapy program, Dr Shrink, gleefully played by Tilda Swinton, believing that all he needs is a phone call which he believes will give his life meaning, not realising that Management have already engaged him for a very specific existential purpose.
Even though he did not write The Zero Theorem, Gilliam commented in his talk after the screening that it was apparent to him as soon as he first read the script that Pat Rushin had seen every film he had ever made. Less whimsical than Gilliam‘s most charming works but lacking the grim drive of Brazil or 12 Monkeys, it nonetheless remains unmistakably a Gilliam project, even featuring the requisite dwarf, though his trademark dream sequences are replaced by more modern virtual reality encounters, Qohen dressed as a leprechaun in his sensory suit.
Perhaps due to budget, many of the intricately conceived contraptions of Gilliam’s best loved films have been supplanted with more conventional graphics, particularly the visualisation of Qohen’s workstation which resembles a somewhat dated gaming interface, though the standing sets are as impressive as anything he has previously created.
The mainframe is a vast and insane design, monolithic and convoluted, set within its own building and connected to the world through a vast network of conduits. While the sheen of the production and extensive use of digital additions to enhance the locations may have granted a modern texture, any resemblance to conventional cinema is superficial.
An examination of a man struggling with the reason for his own being who is confronted with the fundamentals of the universe, the narrative is oblique, philosophical, abstract and deliberately withdraws any comfort it briefly offers. With Gilliam explaining that he chose to remove three scenes from the end of the film as he felt them “too Hollywood,” it is a testament to the director that he will not pander to an audience nor a studio, and while the implications of The Zero Theorem require some time to consider fully, that cannot be anything other than a compliment when so few films do.
The Zero Theorem is on general release from Friday 14th March