Film Review – The Zero Theorem
The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam is a man of big ideas. In his latest film, The Zero Theorem (2013), he tackles arguably the biggest idea out there: the meaning of life. That’s quite a mountain to climb, and while I admire Gilliam for taking on the challenge, I’m not so sure he reaches the apex. It feels like he spends the entire run time searching for an answer but finding only more questions. He goes on this journey with his usual quirkiness, filling the screen with creative and colorful visuals. But how long can we keep invested in a story that runs around in circles?
Those familiar with Gilliam will quickly notice the similarities between this universe and the ones he created in Brazil (1985) and the futuristic scenes in Twelve Monkeys (1995). They all seemingly exist on the same playing field. One of the strengths here is how he builds the world with strange eccentricity. There are bursts of light and extreme colors, characters wear odd clothing with splashy patterns, and technology is integrated with the organic in contrast to each other instead of in synchronicity. Gilliam unfortunately only shows off his city in a few scenes (perhaps because of budget issues?), but the scenes we do get have an expansive and lived-in quality to them.
Shuffling through this place is Qohen (pronounced “Cohen”), played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays our protagonist as socially awkward. He does not know how to relate to other people, becomes uncomfortable when others get too close, and would much rather be in his home alone than anywhere else. He doesn’t operate as an individual; he keeps referring to himself as “We.” There’s a constant stiffness in Waltz’s performance that’s appropriate to the character. He never feels at ease, as though he is constantly walking around with a pebble in his shoe. He’s also completely hairless, giving the impression that he’s suffering from some type of illness.
Qohen is going through an existential crisis. Years ago, he received a phone call meant specifically for him. I will not get into the details of that call, but because of it, Qohen has not stopped wondering about life, the purpose of it, and if there is anything greater than what is known. This theme is highlighted in the layout of his home. Qohen lives in an abandoned church—rusted and cracking at the seams. He doesn’t just ponder the issues between reality and spirituality; he exists within that dilemma.
Qohen is a computer programmer/hacker, although the extent of his work is relegated to video game-like mechanics. His expertise with computers combined with his concerns about life make him the perfect candidate for a special project. His boss, “Management” (Matt Damon), assigns him the crucial job of decoding the “Zero Theorem,” a mysterious algorithm that may help prove the meaning of existence (or the lack thereof). Working from home, Qohen tries his darnedest to solve this riddle. But as days turn to weeks, and weeks turn to months, he eventually becomes distracted as outside forces intrude on him. These include fellow employee Bob (Lucas Hedges), the online physician, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), and Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who acts as a potential love interest for Qohen.
The screenplay (by Pat Rushin) is not concerned with basic plot conventions. Once Qohen starts to work at home, the narrative shifts to be more episodic. These pieces (for the most part) work individually, but not so much when strung together. For example, there are extended sequences where Qohen enters a virtual reality paradise with Bainsley. These are beautiful scenes, adding to the desire Qohen has for some type of inner peace. However, they don’t sit right when paired with scenes between Qohen and Bob, or when Qohen is working by himself. Maybe that’s the point, since they are a distraction from his job. The problem is that it softens the dramatic tension. There is no forward momentum, no need to get to the next scene. Instead, the pacing meanders it’s way through—moseying along when the themes beg for urgency.
The most troubling aspect here is that Gilliam has already traversed similar waters nearly three decades ago. His vision is more refined, his artistry cleaner and further developed, but the message is the same. Ideas of individuality, government and authoritative suppression, loss of identity within the bureaucratic machine—it’s all there. The way Qohen gets bombarded with commercials and advertisements walking along the street, all pushing him to conform with the rest of society draws parallels to Sam Lowry’s journey in Brazil. Both characters want to break from their societal constraints for something more significant. I have no problem with filmmakers obsessing over certain philosophies in their work; some of the best writers/directors have been saying the same thing for years. But because The Zero Theorem so closely resembles Gilliam’s prior films in tone, style, and execution, it’s hard to see it as a singular piece without acknowledging that he’s already done this before, and done it better.