The Zero Theorem

By Di Golding

Mailed on July 28, 2014

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Dear Andre Jacquemin
Sound Designer

Dear Andre,

You've worked at almost every end of the sound spectrum: designer, composer/arranger, editor and mixer, and as a music producer on many Monty Python-related projects--you even wrote the music for Every Sperm Is Sacred from The Meaning of Life. It's obvious that one of the things that both you and director Terry Gilliam absorbed from your Python days is a penchant for tempering even the darkest circumstances with a touch of whimsy. This must be why Gilliam chose you for The Zero Theorem, his latest musing on the human condition. Because when life gets heavy, we need a machine that goes ping.

The only thing that socially disinclined genius programmer Qohen Leth wants from his Orwellian employer, Mancom, is permission to work from home. The Management - a twisted Oz-like figure -- grants Qohen his wish, but in exchange requires him to 'hunt entities', chasing down the elusive Zero Theorem. When Qohen starts to crack under pressure, The Management sends in Bob - his own 15-year-old prodigy son - and Bainsley, a perky sex worker. But in order to solve the Zero Theorem, Qohen's biggest obstacle will be learning to have faith in others and in himself.

Audiences have come to expect Gilliam's visuals to be weird and wondrous, and he doesn't disappoint. But in this film, it's what we hear that occurs in technicolor. Gilliam doesn't deal in negative space. Every inch of screen is filled with colour, light, and pattern, and like his trademark use of Dutch angles and a fisheye lens, the effect is only momentarily distracting. We subconsciously acclimatize to it. So, too, is your constant soundscape of blips, burbles, clicks, and chirps, all layered over the omnipresent racket outside Qohen's walls. It's a reflection of how our uninterrupted connectivity has become literal and figurative white noise; a way to shut out the physical world so we can escape to a virtual one.

You can hear the metaphors in this film coming a mile away. Qohen lives in a derelict church formerly inhabited by monastic monks, who, when it went up in flames, would not break their vow of silence to yell fire. At a party, synth-heavy pop music blares in the background, yet everyone is connected to their own devices and dances to disparate beats. When Qohen is in his virtual happy-place with Bainsley, you take things down a notch, overlapping soothing ocean waves and chirping birds over a floating, child-like score. When he is in crisis, we hear the sodium hum of the harsh lights, his hands scratching his hairless head, rats scurrying underfoot, and constant computer beeps under pizzicato strings intensifying his angst until he unleashes a primal (yet silent) scream.

I wanted to scream, too, because for me, being a Gilliam fan means being prepared for disappointment. I want desperately to love all of his films, and yet there are just as many hits as misses. That's okay, though, because even his misses are spectacular and uniquely his own. Still, even at his best, Gilliam leaves something out. Perhaps Qohen is a stand in for Gilliam, here, and The Management is a representative of every studio head he has ever clashed with over budget and creative control. Qohen must toil away on a Sisyphean program designed so that when one thing fits, something else gets destroyed. A clipped, disembodied voice represented by ruby red lips constantly reminds Qohen that "Zero must equal 100%".

Regardless of how hard you twisted the knobs or how far you slid the fader, this film struggles, tonally, to find equilibrium between broad satire and intimate revelation. Many of the pieces are pitch perfect - the doleful yet adorable Christoph Waltz as Qohen, the depressingly flashy set design, the surprisingly understated special effects - and yet somehow, maddeningly, they fail to equal 100%.

Gilliam is widely regarded as a modern day Quixote, tilting at cinematic windmills, and I've always been one of his biggest cheerleaders. No doubt you are as well. But maybe it's time to quit hoping that each new opus is going to be the Second Coming of Brazil. Sure, every sperm may be sacred, but not every Gilliam film is.

Tuning out, Di

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