The Zero Theorem is director Terry Gilliam-squared. The sci-fi film features all of his trademarks—unhinged characters, oppressive societies, canted angles and zooms, colorful settings—and then pushes them to a level that would border on self-parody if Gilliam wasn’t already a self-deprecating person. There’s something fearless inside the Zero Theorem in that the movie tries to wear its brain on its sleeve, which is good because there’s more pontificating than genuine romance. The movie will inevitably invite comparisons to Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, but The Zero Theorem struggles to solve its own problem, namely, turning all of its subtext into text.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is an anti-social introvert who would rather stay at home inside his abandoned chapel than go to work at Mancom where he excels as a “number cruncher.” He wants to stay at home because he’s anticipating a mysterious phone call, and is terrified he’ll miss it. Management (Matt Damon) then offers Qohen an enticing bargain: he can work from home, but he has to solve the company’s top secret project, the Zero Theorem, which is the attempt to prove that “0 must equal 100%”. As Qohen struggles to prove that nothing is everything, he begins to fall for Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a femme fatale who may be his true love or just a distraction.
Gilliam has packed his latest movie with an assortment of outrageous oddities we’ve come to expect from the director. Outside Qohen’s home—which basically functions as a gigantic religious symbol as well as the location for most of the film—the world of The Zero Theorem is like Brazil on acid as Gilliam has replaced oppressive bureaucracy with digital information overload that’s both terrifying but occasionally amusing such as an ad for “The Church of Batman the Redeemer.” Qohen’s workplace is garishly lit and colored, and he does his work by playing a video game complete with gaming controller. Everything is hyperactive, and work has been gamified to make employees more “productive” even though they don’t know what they’re producing other than vials of colored liquid that function as data drives.
The movie is packed with simulacrum and commentary to the point where Gilliam’s hyperactive environment isn’t just saying ideas; it’s screaming them. From the moment Qohen steps out his door, we’re assaulted by the dystopian environment and even Qohen’s behavior. Qohen always refers to himself as “we” and “our”, and when asked about this odd speaking style, he philosophically explains that we’re all the same and that individuality is an artificial construct. The movie is an assault of existentialism as Qohen ponders the meaningless of life, and he’s perfect for the Zero Theorem job since he believes life has no meaning other than a way station towards death.
Gilliam doesn’t have much faith in his audience as he feels compelled to have the characters announce the subtext again and again. If you’re a Terry Gilliam fan, odds are you’re familiar with Waiting for Godot, or at the very least, Qohen is waiting for a call from a deity (in case the church didn’t already tip you off). Instead, Qohen explains “the voice would give us a reason for being.” When we’re zipping through the chaos of the technologically dominated world, we don’t need Qohen’s supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to say that “you can’t get anything done if you’re disconnected” as people tap away at their smart phones.
With all this sermonizing, Zero Theorem comes close to being painfully pedantic, but Gilliam’s eccentric filmmaking and style always ground the picture even if it’s a totally bizarre world. There’s a big cosmic joke, and Gilliam is more than content to laugh along with it rather than at his characters. Qohen is a weird guy, but Waltz’ performance provides balance much like Jonathan Pryce did in Brazil. They’re in a mad world and they’re losing their sanity. They think they’re coming closer to enlightenment and love, and while that’s achieved in Brazil (in a matter of speaking), Zero Theorem is missing that heartbeat.
When it comes time to really ignite the love story between Qohen and Bainsley, we’re too lost in the absurdities of the environment and Qohen’s personality. It’s too difficult to believe he could fall for anyone since he’s too lost inside his own head. How can we expect anyone to fall for him when he doesn’t even see himself as a singular person? This is all in addition to the fact that Waltz and Thierry don’t have much chemistry.
For Gilliam, the concept of “love” between Qohen and Bainsley is just part of a larger stew of ideas that never really come together although they’re still fascinating on their own, and they feel lively thanks to the director’s irreverent tone. That’s the paradox within The Zero Theorem. It wants to take on the notion that life is meaningless even though Gilliam is constantly injecting his movie with a drug-induced cocktail of weirdness and pensiveness to provide meaning to his audience. Zero doesn’t reach 100%, but at least it’s admirably trying to solve the problem.