Terry Gilliam is the director of science fiction classics Brazil and 12 Monkeys, and he debuted the first ten minutes of his latest weird vision, The Zero Theorem, at Comic-Con this afternoon. It stars Christoph Waltz, looks like a cross between Blade Runner and Sesame Street, and will blow your mind.
Though Gilliam couldn't be at Comic-Con, he included a goofy, maniacal personal message with the footage. "They've trapped me in here without access to the internet until I finish this movie!" he said, gesturing at what looked like an editing suite in his house. "I'm relying on fans at the NSA to record everything I'm saying and pass it on to you." His cheerful paranoia was the perfect introduction to The Zero Theorem, which is about a man who is sort of like a software developer of the future — his bosses at Mancom (a horrific amalgam of Facebook, the NSA, and Google) call him a "our greatest number cruncher," when in reality his job is a lot more complicated than that.
All Waltz wants is some disability leave, or at least be allowed to work from home. But his superiors at work don't believe his claim — that "we are dying" — partly because he's only one person, and partly because he's in perfect health. In those first minutes of the film, it was already clear that this is another of Gilliam's meditations on the life of talented but psychologically unhinged bureaucrats who yearn for more meaning in life. Oh, and he's also waiting for a mysterious phone call to arrive on a Gilliam-esque contraption on his desk, next to glowing vials of information and swirling images of outer space.
The real standout aspects of the footage we saw — other than Waltz's twitchy, soulful performance — were the incredible concept designs and worldbuilding. Waltz lives in a near future London where the city's old buildings crawl with augmented reality ads in psychedelic reds, greens, and pinks. As he leaves the decaying steampunk cathedral of his home to go to work, he's assaulted by a loud street full of people in Blade Runner-ish plastic clothes, highlighted in garish colors, their faces surrealistically alive with neon makeup. We see crazy ads following Waltz down the street, advertising services that can give you dreams, or that invite you to join the "Church of Batman the Redeemer." I kept thinking that it was a cross between Philip K. Dick and the crayon-colored urban landscape of Sesame Street.
Waltz's office at Mancom is even weirder, with its glowing transparent cubicals advertising what seems to be social media fascism. Mancom helps you find friends, but also keeps you secure. Its mottos are things like "Making Sense of the Good Things in Life" and "Management . . . Everything Is Under Control." Everybody has bicycle-controlled computers and is constantly handing off glowing vials of fluid to hands in the walls. Yes, it's completely insane and yet you can tell exactly what's going on. This is a world where the commercial web and the government have merged into a terrifying whole.
And Waltz just wants to take a little break, which the company doctors and psychiatrists don't think he needs. We also saw an extended trailer for the movie, where we learn that Waltz is soon to meet the "zero theorem," a giant computer that may have calculated the meaning of life. We see Waltz escaping into a dream world with a sexy woman who draws him into beach scenes, and then he's sitting at his computer, contemplating a clean, quiet world of algorithmically-generated white cubes that seem to represent the shape of the world crumbling and rearranging itself.
Like I said, the visuals are telling most of the story here — we see people torn between hyper-consumerism, love (or maybe just lust), and a monkish quest for meaning that transcends the noisy, garish world that passes for reality.
The overwhelming impression I got was that this movie could be thought of as the third movie in a trilogy that begins with Brazil and 12 Monkeys. It's not as narratively tight as these previous films — it's definitely slow and impressionistic — but it picks up the same themes and unfolds in a similar kind of dystopia. What's great is to see how Gilliam has updated the government dystopia of Brazil to include things like social media and biotechnology, as well as the knowledge work jobs that enslave so many people today. With Waltz anchoring the movie, I think we have another Gilliam masterpiece on our hands. Get ready for a seriously mind-blowing ride.