You don’t need to look too hard to find similarities between Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem and the director’s famed 1985 film, Brazil. Both movies offer a bleak, satirical vision of the future, realized via impressive, extensively detailed production design. Both portray heroes who are flaccid cogs in the system, dissatisfied with ordinary life, waiting for bigger things without the wherewithal to obtain them. Both feature a dream woman who interacts with the hero in a fantasy world.
But they also both burst with so much creativity that, even with all the thematic similarities, they’re different animals. The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam as enthusiastic as he’s been in years—which isn’t to say that he’s more disciplined or coherent. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s definitely alive. There’s a certain pleasure to be had just looking at the world Gilliam and art director Adrian Curelea have created. It’s a future inundated with advertisements, where billboards follow you around on LED ribbons, making sure you see and hear the sales pitch. Megacorporations naturally control everything, and remind everyone of their happy existence.
The city is bright and colorful—as if a bit too eager to express joy—which makes Qohen Leth stand out in his glumness. Christoph Waltz plays the pale, bald oddball, who works as some sort of mathematical engineer for the leading megacorporation. Qohen’s dream, like so many people’s, is to be able to work from home. He’s expecting some vague, nondescript call that will change his life, and wants to be there when the phone rings.
“We are dying,” he replies whenever someone asks how he’s doing—insisting on referring to himself in plural form à la Gollum. But when he has his medical checkup to support his request to work from home, the doctors insist there’s nothing wrong with him. (Hair-loss doesn’t qualify as a sign of disease.)
While it will never be as celebrated as his Oscar-winning roles due to its quieter nature, Waltz’s performance is peculiarly compelling. As a deluded, neurotic misfit, Waltz keeps us guessing whether there’s any sense or logic behind his character’s behavior. Maybe he knows something everyone else doesn’t, or maybe he’s just the latest person to lose his wits in a world gone mad. Whatever the case, his eccentricity earns him the assignment of proving the zero theorem, a mysterious equation that makes everyone who works on it go mad. Since Qohen is already mad, the company reasons, he’s a good fit.
When Qohen works on his computer, he looks like he’s playing a video game. He holds an elaborate controller that he uses to rotate cubes and fly them around to fill holes in a giant block structure. It’s supposed to be a visual representation of his work, and helps portray the zero theorem as a sort of Sisyphean equation. Just when he’s completes one block tower, it causes another to break away, leading him in endless circles of block-grabbing. The video-game styling suggests that all this work is really just a time-killing diversion that ends in emptiness.
Without much plot to push things forward, the different characters Qohen encounters drive the movie. David Thewlis stands out as Qohen’s supervisor, Joby, who refuses to get his underling’s name right. Joby always keeps a jolly exterior while telling Qohen that he can’t have what he wants. Joby gives his employee psychiatric help via a software program called Dr. Shrink ROM, whose avatar is played by Tilda Swinton, sporting a look quite similar to her character from Snowpiercer. Matt Damon plays The Management, a terse and elusive authority figure, seen more in company posters than in real life. He’s so incognito that his suits often match his surroundings.
Some of the other characters don’t work as well. Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a mysterious sexy lady who saves Qohen from choking and starts visiting him, is less interesting than over-the-top. Bob (Lucas Hedges), a 15-year-old computer genius, speaks in sentiments that are too on-the-nose for the rest of the movie’s murky confusion.
The Zero Theorem is at its best when it’s slyly comedic, mixing clever visual gags with its mysterious plot. When it pushes things, the tone becomes unstable, and the philosophical content falls short. At times shallow, at others nonsensical, the movie fails to build up to achieve anything truly revelatory. This can certainly be frustrating, but if you’re watching closely, you won’t be bored.
Writer: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges and Tilda Swinton
Release Date: Sept. 19, 2014