Beginning his career as the man behind the unique, wacky animations featured in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, American-born Brit Terry Gilliam has, over the last 35 years, directed some of the most unique, imaginative and visually stunning films ever produced. His work has been a huge influence on many prolific directors including Tim Burton, Darren Aronofsky, Luc Besson and Quentin Tarantino, with many describing him as a ‘visionary’, but despite this his work does still polarise opinion in some quarters. Zack Snyder has been among the most recent to have a pop at Gilliam, defending his much-maligned screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Watchmen by saying he had saved the project from “the Terry Gilliams of this world” (Gilliam was originally slated to direct the movie).
Oddly, it is often the same elements of his filmmaking that draw both criticism and praise - the gothic look and feel, the one-man-against-the-world storylines, the dystopian, futuristic settings – but regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of his films, his knack of projecting his vivid imagination onto the big screen is virtually undeniable.
So it is with his latest film, The Zero Theorem. Originally set to star Billy Bob Thornton (who reportedly walked away from the project due to his ‘fear of antiques’), instead the lead role of Qohen Leth is filled by Christoph Waltz and, in our opinion, the film is a much better one for it.
Set, predictably, in a dystopian future, Leth is a gifted yet troubled data processor – or ‘number cruncher’ as he is referred to in the film – working blindly to provide technical requirements for projects whose purpose he often has no knowledge of, or interest in. The commute to his place of work and a punishing production schedule have taken their toll on Leth, who believes he is dying. When his doctors refuse to sign him off sick, he engineers a meeting with the man in charge, referred to only as ‘The Management’ (Matt Damon), who decides that Leth is the ideal candidate to work on a mysterious project to prove an equation known as the Zero Theorem.
Leth soon comes to the conclusion that the task is impossible and tries to quit, but management sends a series of messengers and distractions in an attempt to persuade him to continue, including a prostitute (Mélanie Thierry), a supervisor (David Thewlis) and even his own son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), who is a bit of a computer genius in his own right.
Let’s not beat about the bush here; The Zero Theorem is a pretty odd film and it perhaps won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s work, enjoy the gothic cinematography employed by directors like Tim Burton or even if you’re just a fan of sci-fi films in general, you’ll find plenty to enjoy about Gilliam’s latest movie. Waltz in particular is brilliant as the unhinged Leth and the film is as visually beautiful as you would expect.
Over the course of his career Gilliam has directed enough influential, visionary films that, really, he deserves to be considered in the same bracket as people like Stanley Kubrick, but he’s often seen as being a bit too niche for some.
In an attempt to put that right, we’ve picked out five of his best films as an introduction to his work for the uninitiated. Strap yourselves in, it’s going to get a bit weird…
The Zero Theorum: Official Trailer
After co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail with fellow Python member Terry Jones and having made his first solo feature in Jaberwocky, Time Bandits is the first film in Gilliam’s ‘Trilogy of Imagination’ and stars Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin, along with Sean Connery. The story follows the adventures of Kevin, an 11-year-old boy who discovers a portal to another dimension in his bedroom when a horse-mounted knight comes charging out of his wardrobe. When a group of dwarves also spills out into his room the very next evening having stolen a map, Kevin is caught up in helping them escape from a floating head knows as The Supreme Being and finds himself on a strange adventure in which they use the map to navigate to different points in space-time, meeting everyone from Robin Hood to Napoleon. Imagine the books of C.S. Lewis crossed with the madcap Python-esque sense of humour and you’re in the ballpark.
Although it rarely receives the credit it deserves, Brazil is, along with Blade Runner, one of the most influential films in the science-fiction genre. The second film in Gilliam’s ‘imagination’ triptych, if Time Bandits was a child’s view of the world, Brazil is shot very much through the eyes of an adult. Jonathan Pryce stars as Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who harbours frequent dreams about saving a woman in distress. When a misprint caused by a fly getting jammed in a printer leads to the execution of the wrong man instead of a suspected terrorist, Lowry visits his widow and is shocked to discover that she is the same woman that appears in his dreams. Lowry becomes obsessed with trying to find out who the woman is and why she is embedded in his subconscious, transferring to the ‘information retrieval’ department in order to access her records, only to be discovered and put on trial for treason for abusing his new position. Featuring an impressive cast list that includes Robert De Niro, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin and Katherine Helmond, Brazil has become something of a cult classic among sci-fi fans and its Orwellian vision of the future would become a recurring them in Gilliam’s output.
Released in 1995, Twelve Monkeys stars Bruce Willis as a convict named James Cole who is sent back in time by the authorities in order to try and discover the origins of a mysterious plague that has all but wiped out humanity. Knowing only that the virus is man-made, Cole is tasked with discovering who is behind the shadowy organisation known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. However, instead of being sent to 1996 as intended, he ends up in 1990, where he is arrested and locked up in a psychiatric hospital. There he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), the mentally unstable son of a genius scientist who specialises in viruses, and suspects he may be able to lead him to the information he needs. A dark, taut thriller, the film won Brad Pitt his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a win at the Golden Globes. It’s one of Gilliam’s best moments.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson and featuring the writer himself as its protagonist (played brilliantly by Johnny Depp), Fear and Loathing… recounts an expedition to Nevada, ostensibly to cover a desert race, only to see Thompson and his friend / lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) treat the entire trip as a massive, drug-fuelled bender. Depraved, surreal and very, very funny, it’s a film that sees Depp turn in one of his best performances as the unhinged journalist and it’s a testament to Gilliam’s vivid imagination and his ability to bring his often nightmarish visions to life on the big screen.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Possibly the most bizarre film on this list – and that’s going some – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features the final appearance of the late Heath Ledger, who died while the film was being shot. As a result, the film is a bit of a hotch-potch, but its concept is still an intriguing one and perhaps the most ‘Gilliam-esque’ film he has produced to date. Also starring Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield, the plot centres on a wisened old man who heads a troupe of oddballs with their circus sideshow attraction, the Imaginarium, in which customers enter an imaginary world controlled by the doctor’s mind ‘where their dreams come true’. However, this being a Terry Gilliam film, all is not as it’s cracked up to be and those using the Imaginarium get a lot more than they bargained for. Full of weird occult symbolism and accompanied by an equally bizarre storyline, it’s not the most accessible of Gilliam’s films, but it does reward those who have the patience to stick with it.