Terry Gilliam goes back to the future in The Zero Theorem

by Mark Burger

With The Zero Theorem, master filmmaker Terry Gilliam revisits some of the themes he previously explored in Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995). Unlike those films the futuristic society depicted (brilliantly) in the new film is wildly, extravagantly colorful.

But, like those films, power and influence are wielded by forces beyond our control, forces with a nefarious agenda that emphasizes conformity and quashes creativity. Surface beauty can be oppressive, too, and in the Gilliam universe beneath the beauty lies the darkness “” always.

With two Oscars under his belt, Christoph Waltz has proved a formidable screen actor. Here, he’s a whirling dervish of activity as Qohen Leth, a computer programmer obsessed with determining the reason for man’s existence. The story’s existential bent is yet another Gilliam specialty, and adds another fascinating layer to a film already laden with them.

Displaying a manic energy previously untapped in his earlier roles, Waltz (also a co-producer) is an unlikely but undeniably sympathetic hero, very much an Everyman who has not lost his humanity or his taste for independent thought. His eventual rebellion against the system is inevitable, and surprisingly bittersweet.

Qohen is goaded into action by two unexpected relationships; the first is with a bubbly knockout (Mélanie Thierry) who becomes “” literally “” his dream girl, and the second is with a hot-shot teenaged engineer (Lucas Hedges) who becomes both his acolyte and his mentor.

Gilliam’s frenzied, unconventional sensibilities are at full blast here, yet there’s a method to his madness that keeps the story in focus. Pat Rushin‘s screenplay is rife with the sort of satirical observations and ironic jabs that Gilliam revels in, and it’s all presented in almost overwhelming fashion, which was very likely the filmmakers’ intent.

The film’s carnival-like yet distinctly Orwellian ambiance is further enhanced by cheeky supporting performances by David Thewlis as Qohen’s obnoxious but likable (!) boss, Tilda Swinton as an online therapist (who even delivers a diagnosis via hip-hop!) and, most inspired of all, Matt Damon as “Management,” the ultimate source, and force, of power “” and therefore not to be trusted. Ever.

The Zero Theorem solidifies Gilliam’s standing as one of cinema’s most creative, compelling, and occasionally enervating, mavericks, and it ranks as one of the most complete and compelling films he’s made to date. It’s also a credit to everyone who participated in its making, and stands to date as one of 2014’s best films. Dreams might not always come true, but in a pinch an illusion will do the trick.

The Zero Theorem is scheduled to open Friday !