The Zero Theorem explores big themes through Terry Gilliam’s familiar and bizarre imagination. Love, humanity, and faith are questioned as a man struggles to find the meaning of life. As far as Gilliam films go, The Zero Theorem is far from the worst of his eccentric efforts.
The film revolves around Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a computer hacker and a recluse who lives in a large church right next to a sex shop. When he walks outside he is immediately bombarded by colorful advertisements lining the walls of buildings. A financial company advertisement follows him as he walks down the street. Other strange and loud advertisements like that of the church of “Batman the Redeemer,” which calls for people who are “bored of Buddhism and sick of Scientology,” hang above the busy streets where a bunch of tiny, identical cars drive hurriedly along. Qohen works for a company called Mancom, where he crunches “entities” in an office resembling a casino with enough distracting noise and colors to fill the senses. Colorfully dressed employees move about on scooters and roller skates. The crunchers like Qohen sit at computer screens that look like slot machines, while using what resembles a retro console gaming controller to do their work, while they pedal something with their feet. It sort of looks like a hybrid gaming/exercise machine, and the software (I think that’s what it is) is in a vibrantly colored liquid form.
Qohen’s boss, Joby (David Thewlis), who refers to Qohen as “Quinn” even though he’s been corrected time and time again, invites Qohen to a party, promising that “Management” will be there so Qohen can convince him to let him work from home. Management comes in the form as just one man (Matt Damon), a person who appears and disappears rather sporadically and who likes to wear suits that camouflage him into furniture and curtains. Qohen finds it vital that he be allowed to work from home so that he doesn’t miss a mysterious phone call he’s been waiting for. This phone call, he believes, is going to tell him the meaning of life. Management decides to oblige him, but assigns him the impossible task of solving “The Zero Theorem.” This theorem will ultimately prove that everything adds up to nothing and that life has no special meaning; that the universe will keep expanding until it collapses on itself and ends in a big black hole.
He is driven to the brink of madness while working on this theorem, which looks like towers of cubes. One wrong cube put in the wrong place causes the towers to collapse. Just watching him do this is headache-inducing. He tries to hold on to a shred of his sanity with the help of a “shrink-rom,” a virtual psychiatrist who is played humorously by Tilda Swinton. His work is constantly interrupted by calls from Management, giving him a new unrealistic deadline for pieces of work that drive him mad. In addition to this, he is visited by a seductive woman he met at Joby’s party named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who promises to help him get his “call.” When Qohen loses it and smashes his computer screen, Management sends over his son Bob (Lucas Hedges), a teenage wisecracking genius who tries to help Qohen not only get back on track, but also to stop referring to himself as “we,” as if he were the Queen of England.
Whereas in Brazil, the story was a criticism of bureaucratic society, The Zero Theorem is more of a criticism of a world where the meaning of life is easily lost in the confusion of ever advancing technology. Qohen is a man who is waiting for some divine voice to call him on the telephone and tell him why he is alive. In the midst of waiting for this phone call and being absorbed in impossible work that is only meant to prove that everything is nothing, he misses out on what is right in front of him. He misses out on human connection, which could be the true answer to filling the void within him. He wastes his life away trying to find the answer to something which has no definitive answer. That void left within him is comparable to the very black hole that Management wants to prove the universe will be reduced to.
Faith is a recurring theme here as well. Religion seems to be treated like a business, as is shown by the advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer. The image of a camera for Christ’s head and the fact that Management uses Qohen’s faith in the “call” to persuade him to continue working on the theorem shows that faith and religion is fading and has become corrupted and distorted into something that is controlled by corporations.
There is no shortage of Gilliam-esque imaginative visuals and storytelling. I especially love the set designs, from the large, dark church which Qohen calls home, to the frantic, colorful streets outside. I love the idea that Qohen and Bainsley can plug themselves in to their computers and end up in a virtual paradise together, it really expands upon the image of a society run by technology. I like how Management placed cameras all over Qohen’s home to watch his every move, including one in place of where Jesus’ head should be on a huge cross, perhaps to symbolize the worshipping of corporations. The fact that Qohen lives in a church, with a camera Jesus head, and is looking for the meaning of life is ironic. I also love that Bob makes a suit for Qohen so he can plug himself in, and somehow find his “soul.” It is a ludicrous idea, but considering the circumstances in the movie, it’s not so crazy that they would believe that’s possible. If you can use a computer to prove the eventual destruction of the universe, why wouldn’t you be able to use it to locate your own soul?
I’ve loved Christoph Waltz ever since I saw him play a perfect villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. His talent has not gone unrecognized thus far, and rightfully so. He proves his worth and versatility as an actor in this movie by playing this tragic character. Another performance that stood out to me is by Lucas Hedges playing a kid who shows his wisdom through his smart ass jokes. He’s an unsuspecting voice of reason. David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton play small, but unforgettable parts that add humor to what would otherwise be a heavy film.
There’s plenty of negative criticism surrounding this film, and the fact is, it won’t appeal to everyone. Like with most of Gilliam’s films–Brazil, 12 Monkeys, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, to name a few–the message is riddled in creative visuals and eccentric characters. The Zero Theorem may not hold the same kind of power as his widely-loved Brazil, but it is far from a failure in my eyes. It still coincides with Gilliam’s theme of dystopian satire. It explores relevant themes of people being virtually connected, yet at the same time, disconnected from reality. It is a sci-fi spectacle that asks big questions, and not all of them are answered. If you can handle that, then I would recommend this, especially if you are a Gilliam fan.