Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Zero Theorem: Watcher's Guide

If you're not familiar with Terry Gilliam it's high time you became familiar. First of all, he was one of the creative geniuses behind Monty Python's Flying Circus, Britain's masters of satire and one of the funniest comedy troops ever formed. Since that time he has written and directed cult classics like "Brazil," "12 Monkeys," and "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," Health Ledger's final film. Gilliam's latest film, "The Zero Theorem," applies all of his satirical senses in a look a the world as we know it . . .but not as we know it.

Gilliam's protagonist is a man named Qohen Lech, who has to frequently explain that his name is spelled without a "u," and he constantly refers to himself with the royal "we." This is not by accident, of course, as Qohen, played by Christoph Waltz, represents humanity as a whole rather than just one individual. He is haunted throughout the movie by an image of a black hole, which represents his fear of the vast, cold and consuming world.

Qohen's familiarly dreary daily life is overshadowed by his longing for a phone call that will tell him the meaning of his life. Each time his phone rings he falls over himself as he frantically rushes to answer it, only to meet with disappointment when the voice on the other end turns out not be, well, God. He lives in a building that used to be inhabited by an order of monks, who we're told were so devout in their vow of silence that they didn't even call for help when it caught fire and apparently killed them all. Qohen got the burned out building at a bargain price, and detests anything that forces him to step outside into the public world.

When he does venture out, he is greeted by extreme noise and bright lights that cause him to shrink back and wish he could simply close the door and keep that world locked safely outside. Giant billboards scream at him about what he "needs," a thinly veiled commentary on the commercials and many forms of advertising that present us with the same misinformation about filling our own internal emptiness.

Qohen arrives at what amounts to his work cubicle to find an endless amount of data entry awaiting him as he attempts to force zero to equal 100%. This aspect is as confusing to Qohen as it is to the audience, which reflects that nature of the cubicle world with which we are all too familiar. The work never ends, yet the purpose of such work is often lost, and as a result the people doing it can feel like they, themselves, have no purpose.

The boss at Qohen's work is a man named Joby, played by the brilliant David Thewlis of "Lord of the Rings" fame. Much like modern day bosses, Joby professes to care about his employee, but can't even get his name right. When Qohen tells his boss that he's feeling ill and has a doctor's appointment scheduled, Joby tells him to cancel the appointment because he needs him to complete the work right away. This scenario will be all too familiar to corporate workers who are treated like nothing more than cogs in the machine by their supervisors.

When Qohen does make it to the doctor's office, he is greeted by a panel of three doctors who can't agree about any course of action to take regarding their patient's pain and suffering. One of them ultimately gives him a quick-fix computer program that contains a virtual shrink and they send him on his way without remotely addressing his health.

The reclusive Qohen would never be caught dead at a party, yet he is coerced into attending one at Joby's house when the latter promises him a chance to meet with management while he's there. Qohen does, indeed, stumble upon management (played by Matt Damon), but the meeting is a pretense for introducing him to a sultry and sexy young woman named Bainsley (Melanie Theirry). She literally saves his life when she performs the Heimlich and prevents him from choking to death, and then attempts to figuratively save his life by breaking him out of his reclusive shell. What Qohen doesn't know until later in the film is that she is a call girl hired by management for precisely that purpose.

Shortly thereafter, Qohen finally snaps. He realizes that his work is essentially meaningless, that the zero theorem cannot ever be solved, and management begins to inundate him with distractions in an attempt to get him back on track. On the forefront of this effort is the ever more sexy Bainsley, who introduces him to virtual sex, but who freaks out when Qohen actually decides that he might love her and wants to quit his job and run away with her. After all, she was sent as a plant from management to get him back to work, and she is always looking over her shoulder at the hidden cameras that are monitoring her efforts. She takes Qohen to a virtual paradise which she says is "safe," yet there Qohen pushes the limits and nearly drowns, proving that he is anything but safe in what is an artificial world constructed for an artificial relationship.

The talk of quitting his job brings about a home visit from Joby, who tells Qohen that he is his only real friend, something Qohen sees through easily as he notes that his boss can't even get his name right.

As it turns out, Qohen truly is dangerous, most especially to the status quo. His profession of love to Bainsley inspires her to walk away from her job and ask Qohen to run away with her. Management's son Bob is sent to try to get Qohen back in line and even he is won over by his subject's unusual way of looking at the world. When management's son instructs Qohen's virtual psychologist (Tilda Swinton) to admit that she was not really trying to help Qohen, just distract him, Qohen's redemption is nearly complete.

Bob then opens up to Qohen in a scene that happens largely in a park where basically everything (including smiling) is prohibited. He reveals that though he is just 15 years old he is already bored and feels that life has no meaning, which resonates loudly in the youth of America today. Even with the staggering volume and forms of entertainment ranging from computers to video games and movies, everything at their finger tips, much of America's youth is bored to death and sadly lacking in imagination. Soon after, Bob has a nervous breakdown which is blamed on Qohen and results in Joby being fired and Bob being brought in for a meeting with Management (Damon).

The concept of religion as the opiate of the masses is affirmed in Management's soliloquy near the end of the film.  As long as people are willing to throw away this life in the belief that something better is coming after death, the corporation will happily accept their life sacrifice. Chaos pays, says Management, and no one has the power to change it. He then dismisses Qohen, saying his services are no longer required, and Qohen responds by attempting to trash the entire facility. To his frustration, all of the damage he does repairs itself, revealing that the world he thought was real was really nothing more than another illusion. This realization brings the entire scene crashing down on him.

Rising from the rubble, Qohen sees the black hole that haunts his dreams looming over the edge of the fractured scene. Rather than cowering in fear, Qohen turns and leaps into the open space, and as he plunges into darkness and the credits roll, we hear Bainsley laughing and calling to him. It seems that once Qohen turned his back on society's illusion, he found his purpose and true meaning in life.

At the end of the credits we are left with a picture of the crucified Jesus, only with a camera lens where his head should be.

The image is a powerful one, just as the entire message of the film is as powerful as it is visually stunning. It makes me wonder what Gilliam would do with his Monty Python cartoons is that wonderful pack of satirists were doing their thing today.




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