Script Review: Terry Gilliam's Upcoming Sci-Fi Thriller, The Zero Theorem

I've just finished reading Pat Rushin's screenplay to the film The Zero Theorem which is set to start shooting in May, under director Terry Gilliam and producer Richard Zanuck, and which will star Billy Bob Thornton. To pigeonhole it, because I suspect you want me to at least try, I'll call it a science-fiction drama that skidded on the turnpike and ended up ditched in a psychogenic fugue.

My first impression on finishing the script is simple – I really can't believe this was given the greenlight. I'm absolutely ecstatic that it was, but still utterly shocked – the budget must be very reasonable. To put it simply, this was a smart and unpredictable screenplay that will not only require intelligence on the part of everybody in the cast and crew, but the audience will also be expected to switch on and fire all cylinders too. Are they going to be prepared to do that?  I think they'll be thankful for the opportunity.

David Mamet observed that while the general film-going audience might be made up of people who, individually, represent different levels of insight and intelligence, collectively, they're smart enough to figure out anything a film throws at them (well, anything that can be figured out). Of course, this gets more complex when you realize these smart voices can be easily drowned out if they constitute only a tiny minority, and that there are also typically a whole legion of audience members who get lost in confused, misguided, esoteric or defiantly idiosyncratic answers. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with a truly personal (or even eccentric) response, per se, just that some viewers will connect more directly with the intentions of the film makers than others.

Forget that, though.  Even if you end up chasing your own tail from the opening credits to the end of your life, The Zero Theorem will definitely make you think.

The whole film rests upon the shoulders of Mr. Thornton.  His character has the first name Qohen, and the surname Leth. This is, I'm sure, a reference to Qoheleth, the book of the Old Testament known in Greek as Ecclesiastes. The word means "preacher" or "teacher". There's reason to assume this isn't his real name – by which I mean, the name on his birth certificate – but in this as so many other things, the screenplay doesn't spell out what can be reasonably surmised by an attentive mind.

Other key characters include Joby, a co-worker of Qohen's that insists upon calling him Quinn (I expect a previous Gilliam collaborator in this role); Bob, the teen computer whiz with links to Management; Management himself; two Clones called Chubs and Slim that reminded me of Spoor and Dowser from Gilliam's own Brazil; and the buxom Bainsley, who I couldn't help but imagine being personified by Scarlett Johansson.

Pat Rushin has published several short stories before and The Zero Theorem has an awful lot in common with one of them. That story, Call, can be read online now, though I would warn you that it does contain some material you might consider spoilers for the feature film.  On the other hand, it is so completely different in other respects that you might find it impossible weeding out the bits that relate from those that don't.  The most obvious of the major links are that Qohen refers to himself in the third person, as does the narrator of Call, and they are both also waiting for crucial telephone messages.

Qohen's backstory is left relatively abstruse, but a handful of points are thrown down for us to find the shortest and most logical way to connect them – and that's the real story here. The audience and Qohen will together be working through the here and now to understand the long, long ago in a life far, far away. It is in finding these answers that the film provides resolution, and while they aren't spelled out for you, the storytelling is clear enough that anybody engaged will get their satisfaction. In reductionist terms, this is a redemption story about a man getting in touch with himself.

From the very first page of the screenplay, the suitability of Gilliam as a director leapt out at me. There's definitely something familiar about the aesthetic described, blending cheap electronics, hand-adjusted tech, church architecture, dereliction and an overall sense of entropy. Have no doubt that this is going to look like a Gilliam film.

What will separate this film from many of his other works, however, is the scope of the events portrayed. There's only a few locations, and much of the film takes place in the same lab-church.  Yet while this story definitely feels smaller on that front than you might expect from this master of the huge, unfettered epic – smaller even than The Fisher King – the height to which the screenplay's ideas expand is astronomical. I for one am pleased to see Gilliam engaging in smaller projects, the better to get more films made while he's still with us. He doesn't need to spend tens upon tens of millions to make a film people will care about, though I sometimes fear he thinks he does.

There's a series of science-fiction conceits in The Zero Theorem that are, frankly, fantastical: a virtual psychiatrist that runs on a computer screen; some cyber-suits that enable voyages into virtual reckonings of the non-existent soul; that mysterious, controlling entity called Management , which seems able to appear and disappear at will; the ManCom super mainframe and the all-seeing ManCams; a legion of Clones that don't, actually, appear to be Clones at a DNA level. The net effect of eschewing a familiar reality for this more figurative world is vivid and resonant, but I do sense resistance to this kind of storytelling and this kind of fantasy diegesis in some audiences. This film won't be for everyone.

Oh... alright then, to give you an easy point of reference or so, here's my own The Player moment: The Zero Theorem is Videodrome meets Pi, with a splash of Contact and a glimmer of The Fisher King. If you can take Videodrome, and why couldn't you, then you're good to go here too.

Rushin's jokes are good, his characterization clear but never direct and obvious, and his philosophical ideas sufficiently fleshed out and organic enough to not feel over rehearsed. I feel wonderful knowing that the finished film can only better the screenplay – comparing the pages of previous Gilliam films to the final, visual artifact will bring home, I think, how much his craftsmanship and artistry brings out in the story.

The Zero Theorem is now, without a doubt, my most anticipated film of 2010.