Monday, September 29, 2014

The Zero Theorem: Review

Steve Jobs famously criticized rivals in his field for close-mindedness due to lack of LSD use. I must do the same for anyone unimpressed by Terry Gilliam's sci-fi vision, whether in Brazil, 12 Monkeys, or newly, The Zero Theorem.  Here, Gilliam's signature frenzy of visual gags, outrageous set design, and buffoonish bureaucrats shows up in fine Technicolor form. The contemporary appeal of The Zero Theorem, however, is the updated dystopia it offers: A world where the office cubicle has merged with the video-game chair, party etiquette is face-down in a tablet or smart-phone, and sex, estranged from the flesh.

This should sound familiar enough. So familiar, in fact, that protagonist, Qohen (Christoph Waltz) -- as in zen "koan" -- autistically references himself as "we." Symbolically monastic with his shaved head and wardrobe of blacks and grays, he embodies our modern predicament of overworked, technology-induced psychosis as he slaves away crunching arbitrary numbers of questionable benefit to "Management (Matt Damon with frosty white hair)."

Anxious to a point of crippling introversion, Qohen's request for at-home work lands him "The Zero Theorem:" a gargantuan meta-equation, which, if solved, would confirm an essential meaninglessness to life. Just the task for his cosmically frazzled nerves. Before he can check out completely, however, meaning comes knocking at his door in the form of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a prostitute his supervisor hopes will bring him down to earth. Both she and Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management's precocious fifteen-year-old son, interning as a number cruncher for the Summer, chide Qohen's armor and beckon him out of his comfort-zone.

The Media Theorist Douglas Rushkoff illustrates in his book "Present Shock," that the elaborate anticipations of 20th century imagination, coined by futurist Alvin Toffler as "future-shock," have arrived, but superficially so. It's a phenomenon that can be seen as a facsimile of the present, personified by the status update and the tweet, that obscures real experience of the "now." It is such an irony with which Qohen strives to solve and quantify the very moment he's devoted his life to ignoring, all the while yearning for a phone call that he may or may not be imagining.

In this vein, The Zero Theorem is less prescient than poignant, and a character portrait much more than a conspiratorial mind-bender like 12 Monkeys. Gilliam has said in interviews that he considers it a tragic tale about a man unable to connect. Given this admission, he could have better served the story by stripping down unnecessary layers of headiness and locating its heart, which was in the relationship between the characters, and fundamentally, Qohen's to himself. This would have more than compensated the 107 minute screen duration, not to mention, spared the audience some redundant filler shots of surveillance cameras and scurrying rats.

Despite flaws in its narrative, the parabolic themes in The Zero Theorem culminate satisfyingly, and more than justify the grandiose visual spectacle. It's a Gilliam bonus track I can't sincerely recommend to everyone, but for those not pre-disposed to at least find it amusing -- again, perhaps some LSD is in order?

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