Terry Gilliam once joked that if he were a Native American he would be worried about losing his soul, as the world is revolving more and more around selfies. Even though considering himself a ‘filteur’ – mapping together different ideas from collaborators on his films – rather than an creatively independent auteur, Gilliam’s latest film The Zero Theorem still echoes strongly his vision of a modern future immersed in technology.
The Zero Theorem is more colourful than many of Gilliam’s ventures into the struggle of man against modernity. The streets Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) walks to work are marked with bright costumes, running banners of interactive advertisements, and not least the workplace station which runs on vivid tubes continually put in by employers. Under these rainbow settings is, of course, technology at work. The cyberpunk aspect of the film allows the bleakest view of the human world as the populace party with earphones on, putting their arms up in the air with iPad-like devices in their hands, and repeated takings of photographs despite the tone of the situation. It is the darkly comedic social commentary viewers expect from the genius behind Brazil. The film, too, is shot in 16:9 aspect ratio instead of the typical 1.85:1, shown in full frame, identifying the viewers with the camera, switching them from observing to surveilling. The intimacy is built, not only by the film’s quirky characters, but also the cinematography which usually stations them closer to the lens and thus the screen. It is a visually stunning world, but also very claustrophobic and pessimistic – resembling Qohen Leth himself as he completely shuts in to the near-impossible Zero Theorem.
After its trippy look into the near-future, the film quickly leaves the hilarious tone behind to explore the existential questions of humanity among and above technology, if the latter is entirely impossible. It leaves The Zero Theorem more energetic as questions are continually being asked, pushing it to a visual feast of an ending. Nevertheless, the film seems to stutter a bit as it decides between a serious philosophical tone or a playful bitter joke on human existence. In a compressed runtime, the poignancy is not planted deeply enough, though the ending will stay long with viewers.
In a way, The Zero Theorem poses a more eye-catching and comical view of the omnipresence, and our dependence on, wireless connectivity, asked in complicated equations and mathematical banter. The film ends with a beautiful but simply presented moment of Qohen Leth’s self-realisation, the highest of human achievement… but is he completely disconnected to the technology which has informed his life thus far? The ending suggests the solitude of the mind away from mechanical workings of the futuristic world, but at what cost to our physical existence?