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Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit 

Terry Gilliam might still have a great film in him, but "Zero Theorem" isn't quite it<

In Terry Gilliam's latest "The Zero Theorem," Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker "crunching entities" on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing and goes back to nothing.

I won't be so harsh as to say Gilliam's movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it most certainly loses its way after a promising, eye-catching beginning and winds up in a sort of nonsensical, meandering mush.

The movie has all of the hallmarks of classic Gilliam films like "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys." The future is a claustrophobic place where fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of "Brazil." And there are hoses and wires. Lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There's also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console, manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis) that "we" (meaning he) is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen's wish is granted, and he's allowed to work at home on the company's Zero Theorem project, a project that has burned out many a programmer before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he's visited by Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and Management's son Bob (Lucas Hedges) in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want and make out.

All of the locations, be it the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow you and converse as you walk by, and the virtual beach world, give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He's still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious some of his visions are a few dollars short (Gilliam doesn't command the budgets he once did).

What he doesn't have is a script, written by Pat Rushin (his first) that amounts to much. It has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end, and this is a movie where the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of "Brazil's" dark ending, that being the ending of Gilliam's original cut and not that "Happily Ever After" mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly but surely. It's a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments, although his repairman "field trip" to Qohen's home is mighty reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in "Brazil."

"The Zero Theorem" is one of those films where a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It's Gilliam's best film since "Fear and Loathing Las Vegas," although that's not saying much in that the lot includes stuff like the awful "Tideland" and mediocre "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

Gilliam is trying to mount "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," yet again, and I'm hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject, something he is so passionate about, will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He's due for another one, and I think he's got it in him. "The Zero Theorem" represents a great director starting to warm up again. It's a near miss, but it's a step in the right direction.

More by Bob Grimm

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