The Zero Theorem is Terry Gilliam’s latest film and his first since 2009’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The Zero Theorem adds a new vibrant paint job to some classic Gilliam visuals, and features a cast that really works quite well, but the story is a bit of a disappointment.
Christoph Waltz is the computer genius Qohen Leth who works for Management on a project known as the Zero Theorem, which is an equation that is supposed to determine if there is meaning to life. His work is routinely interrupted by a femme fatale named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and Management’s genius teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges). He also gets help from his computer-generated therapist, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton). Waltz is a great actor, so he can make just about anything work. His reclusive Qohen comes off with a bit of a benign Gollum affectation, someone who has been by himself for too long, is distrusting of outsiders, and refers to himself with plural pronouns. Thierry plays the compromised femme fatale well, giving Bainsley, a character who appears shallow, vibrancy and emotional depth. The real revelation here though is Lucas Hedges. He played one of the Khaki Scouts in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.
The equation is a paradox, as laid out several times by a computer voice announcing to Qohen that “Zero must equal 100%. Good luck.” Qohen takes on the job so that he can work from home as he is expecting a phone call that is supposed to give his life purpose, while working on an equation that is supposed to show that there is no purpose to anything. The script enjoys these paradoxes and mathematical and linguistic pretzel twists almost to the point of being a bit too much into its own cleverness at times.
At times the visual style of the film does not help either. While there is are distinctive Terry Gilliam set pieces and visuals, mixed in are shots of the outside world, a future that has even shorter attention spans, more advertising, and more color. There is no subtext at all about what Gilliam is saying about our current culture through this dystopic future. Even the job that Qohen and others do at his workplace are like video games (like Minecraft) more than how work is today. And there is a virtual reality experience that is a stark contrast to the drab living quarters of Qohen.
One aspect of the story that I did find interesting is that Qohen lives in an old church of some kind. It is one of the few aspects of the film that has some subtlety to it without it being too opaque and obtuse. There is a sense that this computer hacker/mathematical genius is living amongst the crumbled remains of religion. Given the state of the world that Qohen lives in, science and math seem to be hurtling down a similar path, like this future is a stop on the way to the far distant future in Idiocracy. But while Qohen is a man of science, so to speak, he still clings to faith, however misguided, in this phone call he is waiting for that is supposed to give his life purpose in the face of meaninglessness.
The Zero Theorem is a film that has moments that really show a creative spark, but too many muddled moments mixed in to make it worthwhile when there are other, superior Terry Gilliam films out there that delight.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars.