Review: The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero Theorem is the kind of mess that only Terry Gilliam makes. I mean that as both a compliment and a criticism, as the film boasts many of Gilliam’s strengths along with too many of his weaknesses.

Set in a dystopian near future (familiar territory for Gilliam), the film depicts a jumbled nightmare of consumption and degradation: bright chirping advertisements plaster the crowded streets just outside the main character’s burnt-out cathedral home.

Our everyman protagonist, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), “crunches entities” at Mancrom under his annoying supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), and the mysterious Management (Matt Damon). Starkly bald, neurotic, always referring to himself in the third person plural (as “we”), Qohen continually complains to his supervisors that he’s unwell and needs to work from home so he can be ready for his awaited telephone call. His strange request is finally granted when Management selects Qohen to work on an important but reportedly impossible project: solving the “zero theorem.” As his quest progresses, Qohen is aided by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an Internet sex worker with a heart of gold, and a precocious computer prodigy (Lucas Hedges).

Like Gilliam’s many other works of science fiction and fantasy, The Zero Theorem is a visual wonder cabinet, containing more invention in single frames than entire feature-length sci-fi blockbusters. As with Gilliam’s other works, grotesquery dominates the film’s visuals. Shots are jam-packed with important details and multiple objects of attention. I admire the satirical little touches, such as how people dancing at a party are each plugged into their own earbuds and tablets, suggesting isolation in the midst of common revelry, or how the idiotic red tights cyber suit Qohen has to squeeze into in order to connect with Bainsley online magnifies the sheer absurdity of cyber sex. Or the Church of Batman the Redeemer! We also get Gilliam’s trademark odd camera angles and long elegant movements. The film opens with a strange, striking shot: the camera rotates and pulls back slowly from a black hole in outer space revealing a naked man, Qohen, seated and contemplating the image of the black hole on the screen in front of him. He waits for the telephone to ring.

This evocative, allegorical image indicates the deep themes Gilliam and his screenwriter Pat Rushin are interested in, but their story of an everyman waiting for a message of meaning in the face of nothingness gets lost in a jumble of tired tropes and unnecessary complications. Gilliam’s visual inventiveness often cloaks his love for sentiment and cliché. Qohen’s love for Bainsley is never as moving or significant as Gilliam seems to expect it will be, and just when I thought the child prodigy might add something to the film, he’s shuffled off in a dark way. As any attentive viewer will expect, Management reenters the narrative late in the film, but I don’t really understand his game plan, even after he explains it to us. The most impairing weakness in the narrative, however, is that Qohen Leth never achieves his everyman status; in spite of Christoph Waltz’s almost preternatural ability to fascinate onscreen, the character is at turns too strange, too pathetic, and too repellant to win over the audience’s identification. Bland Sam Lowry worked better.

Like the narrative, the dystopian world visualized in The Zero Theorem never comes together and thus never convinces. The corporate nightmare Qohen is entangled in recalls Gilliam’s masterpiece of satire, Brazil, but while that film depicted a bureaucratic state of typewriters and too much paperwork, the private-sector entity crunchers in The Zero Theorem do their work moving digital blocks around on flatscreens using video game controllers. Most of the film takes place in Qohen’s cathedral home, and its mix of ruins and technology recalls the future in 12 Monkeys, but why have the cathedral? Does it signal a dearth of meaning in the future? Or does it just look great? Sometimes it’s hard to tell what kind of dystopian world Gilliam is trying to construct.

The film seems interested in the implications of online connectivity and ubiquitous personal technology, but then why include the tubes of liquid that are passed out by hands through little windows and are plugged into computers? Such throwbacks to pre-digital technology might be neat but they’re out of place. Furthermore, if this is a dystopian future, what’s the central problem with this world? Is it the chaotic corporatism on display? Humanity’s technological dislocation? The world depicted is interesting but never achieves fullness, and one important reason is because the story retreats to the confines of the cathedral after the first act, and from then on loses some of its fascination. Unlike Brazil, The Zero Theorem remains a hodgepodge of satire, not a solid blast.

At least The Zero Theorem is a mess made by Terry Gilliam though, which makes it better than most. In spite of my disappointment with the incoherent narrative, the underdeveloped dystopian world, and the scattershot satire, there’s lots of stuff to admire here. Like most Gilliam messes, it also deserves a second viewing some day.

For now, 5 out of 10

The Zero Theorem (2014, UK/Romania/France/USA)

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by Pat Rushin; starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, and Matt Damon.