Directed By: Terry Gilliam
Written By: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon
What is the meaning of life? It’s a question that has been bothering brilliant computer scientist Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) for quite some time, and he spends a majority of The Zero Theorem dancing around the issue. At first, his awkward, antisocial demeanor is hard to identify with. He mumbles a lot, freaks out when people touch him, and refers to himself as “we,” much to the chagrin of those around him.
It all seems to be a clear-cut case of narcissism mixed with a pinch of garden-variety insanity, until we realize that Qohen is actually depressed, and given how his life is portrayed in The Zero Theorem, it’s easy to see why. His work as a “number cruncher” is inefficient if not essentially meaningless, and Qohen’s only friend seems to be a bumbling supervisor who can’t be bothered to pronounce his name correctly. He’s also expecting a mystical phone call from an all-knowing source, a delusion that his peers play along with for no immediate reason. To top things off, his company is run by a totalitarian entity known simple as “the Management” (an almost unrecognizable Matt Damon) who knowingly watches his every move. Throw in a complicated love interest in the form of call-girl Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and the constant nagging of intern-come- corporate heir Bob (Lucas Hedges), and you’ve got a recipe for instant psychosis.
Given this grim existence, so it’s difficult to blame Qohen when he reluctantly accepts a challenge from his superiors to crack a variation of the Null hypothesis, or, as this film refers to it, the titular Zero Theorem. It’s not like he really has a choice, anyway–Management seems to always get what Management wants, as this is the type of future painted by director Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin. Instead of the oligarch portrayed in Brazil or the disease-ridden hysteria of 12 Monkeys, The Zero Theorem opts for a different take on everyday dystopia that hits a bit closer to home: the unchecked rise of corporate hodgepodge. As this is a Gilliam offering, things are undeniably exaggerated, but much of it rings true, especially for those who spend their days slaving away behind cubicle walls.
A dingy future such as this should really sell itself, but unfortunately, this isn’t the case. As if a “Big Brother” corporate entity and Qohen’s existential crisis weren’t enough, the first 30 minutes of The Zero Theorem is downright headache inducing, complete with unnecessarily loud music and ill-placed slapstick. No one has ever accused Gilliam of being subtle with his films, but the consistent hammering is mostly unwarranted. Ironically enough, things pick up steam during the latter half when things finally get quiet enough for the audience to actually piece together what The Zero Theorem is trying to say.
Again, this isn’t surprising, since Terry Gilliam has effectively made a living out of incoherence. Visually striking incoherence, but incoherence nonetheless. His filmography is a study in false profundity; meaningless affairs that mimic deep thought and hard-edged philosophy. Gilliam’s movies exhibit no reason to be, while simultaneously making a case for their very own existence.
Some may interpret this as harsh criticism, but I make such statements in admiration. Believe it or not, I’m actually a fan of his work. Gilliam is a rare breed, a filmmaker with the ability to take what is essentially very little and spin it into something that resembles poetry. There’s no denying the artistic merit in his work–he just happens to thrive in abstract realities. The real brilliance behind Gilliam’s work, though, is the fact that his films are blatantly self-aware of their own absurdity. The Zero Theorem is no exception to this rule.
Upon first glance, everything about this film is classic Gilliam–spastic dialogue, the visual splendor of a saturday morning cartoon, and an exceptionally noisy soundtrack. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a narrative that begins by mocking the trivialities of real life and later on requesting–nay, requiring–you to appreciate it. It takes a deceivingly light approach to a heavy handed subject, and by the end, most people will either love it or they’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
My experiences fell somewhere in between this spectrum. I wanted to love The Zero Theorem for the nonsense that it is, but I was on my second dose of ibuprofen by the time I cared enough to empathize with Qohen and his resistant quest for the meaning of life. I hate using this analogy, but it fits: it’s just too much of a good thing.
The Zero Theorem is currently available for purchase and rental from several VOD services, including Amazon Instant Video.