The Zero Theorem

May 17, 2014
Christoph Waltz in 'The Zero Theorem' (2013)
Christoph Waltz in 'The Zero Theorem' (2013)

After cutting his teeth with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Terry Gilliam is habitually viewed as a maker of dark, fantastic comedies. The truth is that he makes essentially bleak films festooned with comic touches, like Rococo decorations on a coffin.

The Zero Theorem has been mooted as the third part of a dystopian trilogy, along with Brazil (1985) and Twelve Monkeys (1995). Gilliam has denied this, although he seems vaguely attracted to the idea. One suspects that what he really enjoys is getting hold of a large, imponderable concept such as The Meaning of Life, and using it as a nucleus for a satire on a world he finds increasingly shallow and distracted. If this be comedy, it’s comedy with a bitter-and-twisted ambience.

Those two earlier films are often identified as as cult classics, and The Zero Theorem is likely to be viewed in similar terms. It is not, however, a movie that seems destined to be a major box office success. Regardless of his amazing knack with sets and details, Gilliam is a clumsy story-teller. His narratives can be confusing and downright prententious; his characters are hardly more than caricatures. At worst, everything feels like it has grown out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I was never convinced by Brazil or Twelve Monkeys, and The Zero Theorem is just as convoluted. The anti-hero of the film is Qohen Leth (Christopher Waltz), a shaven-headed computer hacker who spends all day crunching data for a huge corporation called Mancorp. To get to work he has to pass through streets filled with characters that look like they escaped from a forgotten science fiction film by Fellini. In these sequences Gilliam is at his inventive best, crafting a futuristic nightmare that is only a slight extrapolation from contemporary reality.

Qohen (pronounced “Cohen”), is neurotic about almost everything. He has a dread of dirt, he hates being touched, he is allergic to the concept of pleasure. In this he is the antithesis of his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), a jokey, happy-go-lucky type, who seems to have wandered out of an old Monty Python sketch.

Joby invites Qohen to a party, with the promise that he will get to meet Management (Matt Damon), and explain why he should be allowed to work from home. The reason Qohen wants to stay home – in a rambling ex-monastery filled with picturesque junk – is because he is waiting for a phone call that will tell him the meaning of life. If you’re already bamboozled it doesn’t get any easier from this point. Enter Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a sex kitten who shows a sudden fascination for our uptight hero.

When Qohen’s wish is granted and he is allowed to work in his monastery, he receives a new task. This is to prove the Zero Theorem, which seems to come down to the proposition that everything is meaningless. To assist him, Management sends over his teenage, pizza-eating son, Bob (Lucas Hedges). Meanwhile, Qohen goes steadily crazy, aided by the attentions of his virtual cyber-psychiatrist, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton); and the insistent Bainsley, who tries, via her website, to lure him into a sexual fantasy played out on a desert island.

So what’s it all about? Pat Rushin’s screenplay is wildly cluttered and inconclusive. Instead of a narrative it seems we are being fed a lot of conflicting information intended to induce feelings of paranoia and confusion. It’s not sufficient to watch Qohen going through the wringer, we have to experience it for ourselves.

Gilliam’s underlying message seems to that this is where we could end up if we remain chained to those glowing computer screens, preferring virtual reality to lived experience. This may be true enough but it is a horribly banal proposition. After working our way through all the visual and conceptual bric-a-brac strewn in our path, we might expect something a little more incisive or profound.

Qohen is not an everyman figure but a freak, and the same might be said for every other character. The viewer that can identify with anybody in this film would already be too far gone to be shaken or stirred by any amount of luddite evangelism.

The Zero Theorem
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Screenplay by Pat Rushin
Starring Christopher Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton
USA/Romania/UK, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17 May, 2014.