In The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam has decided take on nothing so less as the mysteries of life and existence in his own inimitable, absurdist way. Following an eccentric, mad computer genius who retreats from outside life as he waits for some sort of cosmic call giving him the answers to life – it’s the directors most science fiction-influenced film since 12 Monkeys. But its heavy-handed whimsy and wheel-spinning storytelling unfortunately puts it squarely in the realm of self-indulgent Gilliam clunkers like The Brothers Grimm and Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
Set in a colorful, sardonic near future where seemingly everyone on the street dresses in neon-hued pop-art couture, and blinking, ever-shifting digital signage exhorts people to worship at the Church of Batman the Redeemer, the film follows one Qohan Leth (Christoph Waltz), a neurotic, agoraphobic “cruncher” at the ill-defined corporation Mancom, manipulating digital Rubic’s cubes into vials of brightly colored liquid (don’t ask.) Morbid, nihilistic, depressed and at no ease with humanity, Qohan waits for a perhaps never arriving phone call destined to give him the answer to fate and the meaning of life while also desperately seeking an audience with his mysterious, all-seeing, Orwellian boss Management (played, briefly, by Matt Damon in a white hairpiece and suits that blend him into the scenery) so he can request a permanent transfer to “work from home” status (home being a large, ornate, litter-strewn cathedral.) Qohan is granted his request, and given a the nearly impossible task of proving the zero theorem, a mathematical equation that will determine the answer to everything in existence is…nothing.
Holed up in his fortress life abode, the paranoid Leth slowly unravels (well, even further from his already tetchy state) as he tries and fails to solve the theorem even as he begins to make a few unexpected steps into re-embracing humanity thanks to the presence of two frequent visitors: a call girl (Melanie Thierry) who only has sex through advanced virtual reality and provides Leth a measure of the thing called love, and Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management’s rebellious skater-punk genius son, hired to help Leth out.
A fantasy-infused existential comedy, The Zero Theorem has been described as unsolvable riddle by some, though that’s not really true – Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin actually put their themes hamfistedly right there on the surface, coloring them over with densely packed visual detail. It’s quite apparent that the film is about the disconnect of technologically enslaved modern life and how our own desperate search for answers keep us from meaningfully embracing humanity. Everything here is an exaggeration of our modern existence, that’s where the film really works: for a good half hour, The Zero Theorem wows us as Gilliam plunges us into a chaotic, colorful future-vision world that looks like some bizarro mashup of dystopian nightmare, retro-chic and Japanese techno-litsch. Shot in Bucharest on a low budget, its still the kind of busy visual marvel we expect of Gilliam. It’s too bad that story, for all the interesting intellectual ideas it attempts to lift, has no steam.
Once the novelty of Gilliam’s future world wears off—roughly around the same time Leth holes up in his massive religious bunker—one begins to realize that neither Gilliam nor Rushin know exactly where to go with this material. What results is at once repetitive and emotionally distancing and increasingly uninteresting. Waltz, a normally fine actor, is stymied by the underwritten caricature that is Qohan Leth – fine only in a few stray moments, the rest of the time Waltz’s performance is little more than a collection of tics and stutters, the actor unable to get a handle on this sketchy character. Hedges and Thierry, unfortunately, are only merely adequate as one note foils, while familiar faces—Damon, David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton—show for brief, inconsequential cartoon roles.
At times spirited, clunky at others, The Zero Theorem never quite answers the questions Leth seeks, and it was never meant to. But this ride through existential angst manages to be at once cluttered and underdeveloped, full of heavy-handed satire, jokes that are run to the ground and ideas that are delivered in ways that are both charming and laborious. Gilliam has created a stunning universe, but the ride through it is uneven, exhausted and misses the philosophical target it aims to hit.
2.5 stars out of 5.