Random Thought 'Reviews': The Zero Theorem

(Film directed by Terry Gilliam)
Overly Expectant Thoughts by Jasmine Sailing

Written on: September 30, 2014

Spoilers: No, not really. I guess I spoiled an ad and a sign that were at the beginning. If you had delusions of me being a person of great taste, I probably spoiled that too.

This is an excellent example of what happens when I go into something with too many high expectations.

First, it’s a new Terry Gilliam movie! Not that such a thing would’ve always meant a lot to me, I was somewhat annoyed by The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (which probably hit me about the same way as Monty Python: I like the acerbic humour, but the more puerile humour tends to grate my nerves... Yeah, I’m a dour person), but I did enjoy (and rewatch, on all counts) Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (actually I couldn’t remember that one after the first time I saw it, but that’s entirely another story), and Tideland.

Tideland was particularly horrifying and impressive, and that was still the most recent film on my mind. Though for purely superficial image reasons the beginning of Zero Theorem quickly brought Twelve Monkeys to mind as well. I spent the beginning of the movie thinking about those films, while people laughed around me and I didn’t join in. Maybe I chuckled a little inwardly over the Church of the Risen Batman, or whatever it was. Actually the ads were reminding me of an underwhelming pop cultural version of the ones in Bladerunner.

Which means it took all of a few minutes for Zero Theorem to start lagging behind some really good things, in comparison. The whole Management set-up had potential, and I did like the “Everything is under control” sign, but how many good dystopian stories can that fling through your thought process to further build the list of things to fall short of?

Something about the pop cultural references in the ads, and everyone laughing at jokes that I didn’t seem to be laughing at, triggered a fear that Terry Gilliam was heading back in a Monty Python sort of direction. I mentally curled up in a ball and began hoping something would immensely disturb me, like Tideland did.

And then at some point I thought “Oh, this is getting kind of PKDish!” and the downward spiral could only get worse from that point onward. Because, of course, the movie fell short of getting wonderfully PKDish.

Was I having these issues because I have great taste, and because, as I age, I’ve developed too much of a collection of superior books/movies/etc in my cognizance? Absolutely not! I can watch something largely crappy and vapid like the latest X-Men movie and have fun. Bruce and I developed an immense treasury of running jokes about that story, which largely happened in self defense when we made the mistake of trying to watch a super-boring cartoon of it because I didn’t like comic books as a kid and knew squat about that universe. I don’t think I can begin to express how terrible that cartoon series was, but it wound up being a worthwhile viewing experience because it was sooooo bad that (in the comfort of our own home, where we wouldn’t annoy anyone) we developed such a vast in-joke repertoire (after all, it was sooooo boring that we could talk and laugh over the whole damn thing... and really needed to, overall) that we can now watch X-Men anything and be amused by our own personal version of it. That’s all we’d ever expect to get out of X-Men movies, besides maybe a few semi-interesting FX or something.

I simply ran in the exact opposite direction with my expectations this time (and we were in a theatre where, unlike the Ebert wannabe behind us, we wouldn’t be jerky enough to amuse ourselves with ongoing commentary). I wanted the movie to be a Valis/ Tideland hybrid in a Bladerunner setting, with touches of most of the best cyberpunk I’ve ever read and a solid dystopian essence. Yeah, right. I’m sorry, Zero Theorem. Really I am. I swear I’ll give you another chance when you come out on DVD and I can check you out from the library. About all I could do this time was stare vacuously while people talked (after it ended) about how much of a masterpiece it was.

It wasn’t just me. Bruce shared the “waiting for everything that wasn’t there or was fallen too short of” experience. He was in somewhat better shape because, unlike me, he’d read some negative reviews and had lower expectations. So at least he managed a “Well, it looked good”. “Yeah, so did Bladerunner. DECADES AGO.”

One thing is for certain: we both agreed that Gilliam is better at staring into the abyss than he is at being hip and goofy. I don’t think my opinion about that will change, no matter how much I divorce myself from wishful preconceptions. But it could well be that the movie was better than I thought it was, and I was too busy being disappointed by my absurd expectations to notice.

For now I’ll leave off wondering if Zero Theorem was some sort of hasty frustration vent about the Don Quixote difficulties. I enjoyed the documentary about his failing to make that film (Lost in La Mancha) considerably more than I enjoyed this film... For the record, I would be okay with Don Quixote being a lot goofier than Tideland. And it’s not like Gilliam was being a control freak with this one. He didn’t even write it.

Final note: It got “Creep” stuck in my head. I really did not like that song when it came out (it seemed like nothing more than whiny drivel with boring music), but this version (with female vocals) at least didn’t chase me out of the theatre during the credits. I would probably feel less chased out of my head if that version hadn’t morphed into the original while sticking.

Verdict: Low expectations are fucking awesome. Stick with them, and you might have something better to look forward to. As for this film, I obviously have no idea if it’s any good.

Post-note: A friend who had a similar reaction to mine asked me what I thought of the movie, so I showed this to him. He’d also reacted over-expectantly to Brothers Grimm, which he reminded me of after reading this. I’d completely spaced it out that Brothers Grimm was a Gilliam movie. Why? This same friend gave me the impression that I wouldn’t like it as a Gilliam film, therefore I watched it as a run of the mill no names attached production. Then I persisted in remembering it that way. It’s filed in my memories as “roughly on par with a subpar Tim Burton film, like Sleepy Hollow” and “entertaining enough, but Brotherhood of the Wolf was better”. I have little doubt that it was considerably less interesting than Zero Theorem, but knowing in advance that I shouldn’t associate it with Gilliam left no hard feelings upon the viewing and even preserved my overall image of the quality of his films. Ironically, if I had mentally registered it as a Gilliam film I wouldn’t have expected everything he does to compete with Tideland. The moral here? Perhaps that instead of attending Zero Theorem’s opening night, I should’ve waited for my friend’s reaction to convince me that this one also wasn’t a Gilliam film. At the moment I’m contemplating deciding this essay was written by someone I’ve never heard of and have no expectations for.

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