Unlike most people who make movies, director Terry Gilliam is a visionary filmmaker with a distinctive style. The problem with being that unique, though, is that while every movie he’s made has been interesting in one way or another, not all of them have been good. Thankfully, his newest, the cyberpunk thriller The Zero Theorem (Blu-ray, DVD), is closer to such signature works as Time Bandits, Brazil, and 12 Monkeys than any of his interesting failures.
In The Zero Theorem, Qohen Leth (Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz) is a highly-skilled but socially-awkward computer specialist who’d much rather work at home than have to go into the office. Which is what he finally gets to do when his boss (Ocean 11’s Matt Damon) tasks him with proving the titular formula. Adding to the madness are his immediate supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis, who played Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter movies), his computer A.I. therapist (Snowpiercer’s Tilda Swinton), as well as a free-spirited woman named Bainsley (Babylon A.D.’s Mélanie Thierry) who tries to help Qohen break out of his shell.
While some have suggested that The Zero Theorem concludes a trilogy Gilliam started with Brazil and continued with 12 Monkeys — and the three films do have some stylistic and sci-fi similarities — there’s no connection, narratively or thematically, between this and those other movies. But having said that, if you’ve enjoyed Brazil and 12 Monkeys, you’ll find The Zero Theorem to be just as engaging. Granted, it’s not as good as those two, largely because it’s not as satirically insightful as the former nor as exciting as the latter. Though it’s almost as entertaining, and certainly as enigmatic and as open for interpretation.
Along with Gilliam’s inventive visual style, The Zero Theorem also benefits from its first rate cast. Not only is Waltz completely convincing as the awkward Qohen, but he’s matched, note-for-note, by the equally screwy Swinton, and perfectly complimented by the quirky but effortlessly adorable Thierry.
As for those visuals, The Zero Theorem is striking in how it’s both familiar and freakish. Much like he did with Brazil and the future scenes in 12 Monkeys, Gilliam here imagines a plausible but ridiculous future world slapped on top of our own, one where function overrides form to a ridiculous degree. Except that unlike in Brazil and 12 Monkeys, there’s also elements of over-commercialization and technology that makes this look like a cross between Blade Runner, The Fifth Element, and Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. It also helps that Gilliam shoots everything in an unique way, often opting for odd camera angels and what seems to be a very slight fish eye lens. Which is why, at the very least, The Zero Theorem is worth seeing if only as a visual spectacle.
And yet, when I got to the end, I wasn’t entirely sure The Zero Theorem was a movie I wanted to add to my personal collection. Much as I enjoyed it, and want to see it again, I think I will have to actually see it again — and in a few months, not right away — to truly decide if I want to keep it.
Aside from the movie, The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD also has a handful of informative extras. Key among these is “Behind The Scenes,” a nearly ninteen-miniute-long look at the film’s production that includes on-set footage, concept drawings, and interviews with Gilliam, Waltz, and other members of the cast and crew. Granted, it’s a rather conventional look at the filmmaking process, which is to be expected given its brevity, but it would’ve been better had they talked about how the movie was originally going to be made in 2009 — with, at various times, Al Pacino in Damon’s role, Jessica Biel playing Bainsley, and either Ewan McGregor or Billy Bob Thorton as Qohen — and why that didn’t happen.
As for a more in-depth look at Gilliam’s visual style, this is covered in triplicate with the self-explanatory featurettes “The Visual Effects,” “The Costumes,” and “The Sets.” Clocking in nearly seven minutes, more than twenty-eight minutes, and around eighteen minutes, respectfully, the three go into great detail about their respective subjects. Though it’s hard not to think this could’ve just been part of a longer, more complete version of “Behind The Scenes.”
Last, but certainly not least, The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD has the movie’s trailer. Which may not seem like a big deal. But to people who enjoy watching trailers (like me), and are so often disappointed that they’re not always included on a movie’s Blu-ray or DVD (like me), its inclusion here is worth celebrating.
As informative as the extras on The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD may be, though, they still come up a little short. Mostly because — unlike the Blu-rays for 12 Monkeys, Brazil, and Time Bandits — this doesn’t have an audio commentary by Gilliam, who is as interesting a person as he is a filmmaker. Though, as long as we’re wishing for things, I’d really rather have a commentary by Gilliam, Waltz, Swinton, and Thierry, since actors always make commentaries more fun and less film school-ish. Plus they all seem like interesting people.
There’s are also issues with The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD itself, oddly enough. For starters, after you watch anything in the “Bonus” section, it automatically plays the next featurette listed. Even more annoying, after you watch the original trailer for the movie, which is the last thing listed in the “Bonus” menu, it then shows the trailers for other movies, which are located in the “Previews” section. I’ve never seen this before, and I hope I never do again.
It’s also annoying that the type in the menus of The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD is too small. If you sit at a reasonable from your TV — y’know, like your mama told you to — it’s hard to read the “Bonus” or “Previews” menus, or see the individual images on the “Scenes” menu clearly.
Menu issues aside, The Zero Theorem Blu-ray and DVD is still the best way to see this movie if you missed it in theaters. Especially the former format, which really does justice to this film’s visual style.
To read my review of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, click here.