The Zero Theorem (2014; Terry Gilliam)
By Daniel Barnes
In the opening shots of Terry Gilliam’s cheeky sci-fi dystopia The Zero Theorem, a bald, naked, future man studies the churning menace of a black hole on a large computer screen in an abandoned church. All the while, he waits for a phone call that will unlock the secrets of the universe. And then Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin really start to pile on the ponderous symbolism.
Over the last two decades, Gilliam made mid-career crisis diversions into Southern gothic (Tideland), mainstream CGI fantasy (The Brothers Grimm), and even opera. Meanwhile, he left a string of projects in various states of completion in his wake (including The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, stitched together after star Heath Ledger’s death). Therefore, old-school fans will be happy to hear that The Zero Theorem is Gilliam’s Gilliam-est movie in decades. He even proclaimed it the final chapter in an unofficial trilogy of bleak futures that includes Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
However, I generally hold Gilliam’s work in lower esteem than most cinephiles. A return to his form of fish-eyed frenzy is not necessarily a selling point. True to form, The Zero Theorem feels overstuffed and exhausting. Between this film and Tusk, I’ve had my fill of jokey props and signage for a while. Ultimately, as is the case with much of Gilliam’s work, soul and meaning get lost in the swarm of ideas.
Christoph Waltz plays the bald, naked man, a socially awkward computer slave named Qohen. Like almost everyone else in this totalitarian state, Qohen works for an omnipresent corporation called ManCom. There, he spends most of his day “crunching numbers” by performing seemingly nonsensical and dehumanizing tasks. After a chance encounter with Management (Matt Damon, literally blending into the scenery), Qohen gets put to work on a burnout task. He must find the zero theorem, a reorganization of information that could prove the futility of existence.
Qohen slaves away for months, with the promise of a return call about the meaning of life serving as the carrot to his cart horse. When Qohen starts to burn out, Management pushes his buttons to keep him on the job. At various times, Qohen gets sent a confidant (David Thewlis, stealing scenes right and left), a young mentee (Lucas Hedges), an AI shrink (Tilda Swinton) and a virtual reality prostitute (Melanie Thierry).
Amidst the jam-packed, pop-art ghetto set design and nonstop blather about black holes and “the neural net” lies a lot of half-formed existential riddles. Is the search for meaning meaningless? Does blind faith lead to salvation or slavery? Can free will exist in a world of constant surveillance and evaluation?
Unfortunately, it’s just a misty, sleight-of-hand prelude for Gilliam to devolve into his usual incoherent chaos in the home stretch. You get the impression that, after a lot of stops and stumbles, Gilliam made exactly the film he wanted to make here. Talk about a mixed blessing.