The Zero Theorem is a Terry Gilliam picture that stars Christoph Waltz, with Matt Damon as the antagonist. Even better, the premise is rich with potential ruminations about the nature of existence, free will, and a whole ton of other trippy related subjects. Middling critical reception be damned, I jumped at the chance to see another Terry Gilliam masterpiece.
And for better or worse, that’s pretty much exactly what I got.
Let’s take it from the top. Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a man living in an abandoned church at some point in the (hopefully) distant future. Qohen is a deeply antisocial man with a laundry list of phobias. He also refers to himself in the “royal we” and spends all day waiting for a phone call. He couldn’t tell you who the phone call will be from or what it’s going to say, just that it’s tremendously important. So it would be an understatement to call him eccentric.
The upshot is that Qohen is a genius mathematician crunching numbers for Mancom, your typical monolithic corporation of evil. After months of denied requests, Qohen is finally granted the privilege of working from home so that he can avoid crowds and wait for his phone call. In return, Qohen has to take on the impossible assignment of proving the Zero Theorem.
What is the Zero Theorem, you ask? Well, it’s rooted in the idea that everything — mass, energy, life, everything — came from a huge black hole at the center of the universe. And eventually, everything is destined to return to that same black hole. The Zero Theorem translates this concept into cold hard numbers, stating that the sum total of everything in the universe adds up to zero. Basically, Qohen is tasked with proving in mathematical terms that everything amounts to nothing. Some giant corporation wants irrefutable proof that all the machinations throughout the cosmos, including the lives of every human to ever exist, are ultimately meaningless.
Why would anyone want to prove such a terrifying concept? Why was Qohen selected to take on an impossible job that’s crushed the souls of everyone who’s tried? Wouldn’t you like to know. Hell, I’ve seen the movie and I’d still like to know.
Because this is a Terry Gilliam film, it should go without saying that the future is noisy, crowded, and overwhelmingly bright. This is particularly true of the technology on display, which is made to look overly flashy in a garish kind of way. The machines were clearly designed by the same guy who made Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, but there are so many neon colors flying around that I wonder how much ecstasy Gilliam ingested while prepping for this one.
Obviously, the production design lends itself to some jaw-droppingly psychedelic visuals, with Gilliam’s trademark camera style (Dutch angles, wide lenses, etc.) to lend a sinister edge. It perfectly expresses the concept of a future overrun by capitalism gone amok, as well as the standard Gilliam trope of one man’s attempt to escape an oppressive corporate/government regime.
However, all of this causes a huge problem: It’s too distracting. There were times when I could barely hear the characters talking because there was so much background noise going on. This happened especially often in the first act — a crucial time for exposition in any narrative — so this was a huge obstacle in figuring out what was going on. Even worse, the computers in this film were designed in such a bizarrely incomprehensible manner that it was hard to tell precisely what the characters were doing. Granted, a lot of Qohen’s work in this film involves a lot of impossibly complex mathematical work, which is assuredly quite difficult to express in a visually interesting manner. Still, when I’m watching Qohen play around with computer-generated blocks on a screen and towers start crumbling for no apparent reason, I’m left wondering what the fuck I’m looking at and what any of this has to do with anything. Even when Qohen is talking about his work with other characters, it’s all stuff about “entities” and neural links and Gilliam only knows what any of it means.
In all honesty, there were times when I could swear that even the filmmakers couldn’t keep up with themselves. For example, there’s one point early in the third act when Qohen is presented with a golden opportunity to escape this whole mess, and he turns it down. When that happened, I had to backtrack a while to try and remember Qohen’s motivation for refusing that escape route. In fact, after that phone call he’s waiting for has been quite solidly dealt with, it gets very difficult to figure out why Qohen does much of anything.
It certainly doesn’t help that the film never offers much in the way of a baseline for logic. We’ve already established that the whole world has gone bonkers and anyone we meet could potentially be acting on the orders of Mancom, so no one in the supporting cast can be trusted as a consistent voice of reason. And lest we forget, our protagonist is a socially inept shut-in who dreams of black holes and refers to himself in the first-person plural, to say nothing of the Zero Theorem proof that’s slowly driving him even more insane. We can’t count on him to be our guide through this world, so the audience is left floundering. This gets far worse in the film’s closing minutes, when the climax and the denouement whiplash from one wildly different scene to another. I know that the goal was to close on a note that left us wondering about the main character’s mental state, but Brazil did that perfectly fine without giving the impression that a reel of film went missing somewhere.
Last but not least, the film has a nasty habit of going off on thematic tangents. A key example regards Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a call girl who’s hired to be Qohen’s housekeeper/nurse. Except that Bainsley is the rare prostitute who doesn’t engage in physical sex. Instead, she prefers to service her clients by way of full-body VR suits connected over the interweb. Yes, she and Qohen meet in a simulated paradise to have 22nd-century online sex. On the one hand, it serves their romance arc beautifully. It’s a perfect stepping stone for Qohen, who very desperately needed a good middle ground between “xenophobic shut-in” and “functional human being” as he develops from one to the other. On the other hand, we’re really going into the implications of virtual reality and relationships over the internet? That’s a subject complex and relevant enough to sustain its own film altogether, and they’re trying to cram a few scenes of it into this movie when so much else is going on? Sorry, no.
With all of that being said, I honestly don’t mean to sound like this is a bad movie. The thematic ruminations surrounding the Zero Theorem itself are truly fascinating, bolstered by the recurring motif of an enormous black hole that sucks in and destroys everything around it. The Theorem itself is a brilliantly novel way to examine our own individual worth, especially against the parallel development of a man who realizes just how small a cog he is in the larger corporate machine. Speaking of which, it should go without saying that Gilliam dives into the iconoclastic material with aplomb, like he has with most of his filmography.
And of course, the actors are all amazing. In particular, Christoph Waltz turns in a performance that’s mesmerizing from start to finish. Even in those moments when nothing else around him makes sense, Waltz provides us with an emotional hook strong enough to keep us going through to the end. David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton turn in some very memorable work, and Matt Damon does wonders with only a few scenes. The cast also features Ben Whishaw and Peter Stormare for a brief scene, and it was a delight to see them both. Even so, the standouts of this cast have to be Melanie Thierry and Lucas Hedges. I had absolutely no idea who these two were before I saw this picture, but you can be damn sure I’ll be keeping an eye out for them after their outstanding work here.
(Side note: Look sharp for the late, great Robin Williams, who makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo near the start of the picture.)
To summarize, The Zero Theorem is a slickly produced, dazzlingly intelligent, superbly acted, beautifully demented piece of cinema that does not make a single lick of narrative sense. To summarize even further, it’s a Terry Gilliam movie. Anyone with an ounce of brains would not walk into a movie directed by Terry Gilliam and hope for a coherent story. Indeed, the man seems to revel in disregarding conventional storytelling so that he can push some boundaries and get the audience to think about new and unusual questions. It’s all about plumbing the depths of imagination to make something truly special and unique, wrapping it in such a dreamlike presentation that it’s hard to know which end is up.
Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Gilliam’s work may have a tough time with this one. Even so, I heartily recommend a rental at the very least, just for the experience.