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The Zero Theorem

If they aren’t already, auterist film students of the future are going to have a ball analyzing the oeuvre of Terry Gilliam. It’s not that he makes the same movie over and over again; it’s more like he has one big movie within him that keeps coming out in pieces, varying mostly according to the current state of special effects technology and how much of a budget he was able to scrape together.

Does that just sound like another way of saying he makes the same movie over and over again? I won’t argue the point any further.

If you were to watch The Zero Theorem unaware of its credentials, it wouldn’t take you long to spot it as a Gilliam film: the cluttered sets shot with wide angle lenses that make it difficult to focus anywhere (he likes disorienting viewers), the extreme use of vertical space, the crooked angles, the mix of past and future in his décor so that the time seems to be both the present and future.

The bulk of the film is set inside a repurposed church where Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, looking an awful lot like Uncle Fester) slaves away at his computer. Qohen (pronounced “Quint”) is a classic Gilliam protagonist, a cog at odds with the dominant paradigm, in this case the ubiquitous and obviously named corporation “Mancom”.

Obsessed with waiting for a mysterious telephone call that he thinks will reveal his true place in the world, Qohen asks to be allowed to work from home. Corporate bigshot Matt Damon puts him to work on “the zero theorem,” a mathematical proof that all existence is meaningless.

If that sounds like this is going to be a movie with a lot of math, don’t worry. Qohen’s labors seem to involve re-arranging digital building blocks, not unlike a 3D game of Tetris. He is distracted from his work by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an internet sex worker with whom he cavorts on a virtual-reality tropical island.

The most entertaining parts of Zero Theorem take place early on, when Qohen ventures out of his haven into an urban setting that combines Blade Runner with Idiocracy, amplified by all the oversaturated colors that CGI can squeeze into a scene. Guest appearances by a number of Gilliam friends, including David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton (in what appears to be the same wardrobe and fake teeth she sported in this summer’s Snowpiercer), Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw, and (blink and you’ll miss him) Robin Williams also help engage your attention for a bit.

Like any Gilliam film, it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort has gone into designing and photographing Zero Theorem. What isn’t so clear is what the auteur wants us to come away with from this latest version of his ongoing paranoid fantasy about modern life. There’s little here he hadn’t already beaten to death in Brazil. That he seems so impelled to keep rehashing it indicates that he himself doesn’t feel he’s made himself clear yet, and who am I to argue?

Opens Friday at the North Park

Watch the trailer for The Zero Theorem

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