The Zero Theorem: opening Friday at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood

The very first new release I ever reviewed for Berkeleyside was Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Released in January 2010, it was Gilliam’s best effort in a while – and now, four years later, he’s finally completed a feature follow-up, which (while not quite being up to Imaginarium’s standards) will still satisfy the director’s many rabid fans.

Opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Sept. 19, The Zero Theorem once again allows viewers to explore Gilliam’s decidedly twisted brain, a cavernous place resembling a slightly surreal dystopia of the near future, or, perhaps, a parallel universe of the now. It’s also a place not so very far from the one seen in the director’s 1985 classic Brazil.

A bald and nearly unrecognizable Christoph Walz stars as Qohen Leth, a data cruncher currently assigned to Mancom’s Transfinite Paradox Project. Supervised by avuncular middle manager Joby (Harry Potter and Naked veteran David Thewlis, still an underutilized screen talent deserving of wider exposure), Qohen is desperately trying to go on disability and work from home, a suitably decrepit former church filled with religious icons, statuary, and stained glass. It will also, perhaps, allow him to receive a life-changing phone call he’s been anticipating for quite some time.

Much to Qohen’s surprise, Mancom’s CEO (Matt Damon, looking like a young, svelte Philip Seymour Hoffman) grants his request, but there’s a catch — Leth must use his time to solve the ‘zero theorem’, a complex equation where zero must equal 100%. (Apologies to cinema-going mathematicians: I have absolutely no idea if the theorem has any basis in fact or is complete nonsense.)

Spending the ensuing winter months inching his way towards a solution, Qohen finds distraction in the form of saucy Frenchwoman Bainsley (Mélanie Thiérry) while receiving assistance from Management’s rebellious son Bob (Moonrise Kingdom’s Lucas Hedges) and support from online therapist Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton). Though slowly drawing closer to the answer (by February, zero equals 97.38926%), Qohen begins to wonder if his special call is ever going to come through – or if a life spent in virtual reality might be preferable to crunching data in a damp old church.

Produced with the usual Gilliam grab bag of international money (it’s officially a UK/Romania/France co-production), The Zero Theorem is distinctly a late career effort, echoing the once groundbreaking themes and set design of earlier Gilliam films, especially Brazil and 12 Monkeys. (Is Walz’s bald-headed character an intentional echo of Bruce Willis’ character in Monkeys?)

It also continues Gilliam’s long-running rumination on the eternal tug-of-war between classicism and modernity, paradoxically relying on some rather contemporary special effects to make the case that perhaps life was a wee bit better when we weren’t all glued to our screens – or being observed on screens by others. Gilliam fans won’t want to miss The Zero Theorem, though others may find his grumpy old man musings more annoying than endearing.

Footnote: Look for a brief cameo by the late Robin Williams, seen in an electronic ad promoting the Church of Batman the Redeemer.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...