The Zero Theorem (2013) / Sci Fi-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon
Cameo: Peter Stormare, Robin Williams
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Review published September 17, 2014
Set in a claustrophobic future, a bald and quirky Christoph Waltz (Epic, Django Unchained) stars as Qohen Leth, a computer whiz extraordinaire whose job duties shift, thanks to Management (Damon, The Monuments Men), to try to discover the meaning of life, or lack thereof, through his coding (aka 'entity crunching') of a highly sophisticated computer running a program designed to come up with "the zero theorem", to prove once and for all that all of life equals nothing in the end. Qohen has been obsessed with finding that meaning on his own, expecting a callback from an entity that he feels was about to divulge life's purpose only for their conversation to abruptly get cut off, and he need to work from home in order to be there for that phone call when it happens again. With the help of his old supervisor Joby (Thewlis, The Fifth Estate), Management's genius son Bob (Hedges, Labor Day), and a call girl named Bainsley (Thierry, Babylon A.D.), Qohen is either going to solve life's ultimate riddle or crack up trying like so many who've tried to do so before him.
Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys) returns to wacked-out worlds of futuristic fantasy and Orwellian satire with The Zero Theorem, which appears to discuss that Douglas Adams concept of, "Life, the Universe, and Everything". Religious symbolism abounds, not the least of which is that much of the action takes places from within the confines of a rundown church, where, on a crucifix, Jesus' head has been replaced by a security cam that allows Management to monitor Leth's progress on the job.
Is this a metaphor for the way science and technology are replacing religion and spirituality in the way that we analyze the universe, or is it just a commentary that such advancements are making life meaningless through trivial distractions and virtual realms? I suppose that knowing there is a Church of Batman the Redeemer is indicative of how banal escapism is the new altar of worship for many. The way Qohen 'crunches entities' is reminiscent to the modern for of playing video games, where we all get sucked in performing meaningless tasks in order to derive a form of meaning out of inherent meaninglessness.
Interestingly, the intrusive, totalitarian government that comprised of the main antagonism in Gilliam's Brazil has made way for an intrusive, totalitarian corporation in the form of Mancom, who spy and manipulate their employees, forcing them to work like drones to the breaking point in order to achieve self-serving goals. This shift is telling; it's not the government that runs things anymore so much as the major conglomerates in business, and our individuality is no longer in value as much as what juice the company can squeeze out of us to profit before they chuck us into the trash heap of employees that no longer make a significant contribution. Messages from the government on how to be good citizens are replaced by intrusive, in-your-face advertisements that promise that you can be a better person if you just follow their ways. There's really no escape from the noise, which causes people retreat into virtual worlds that don't really exist, but if the real world has no meaning anyway, perhaps it isn't any more a waste of one's time, Gilliam subtly suggests.
Qohen is all twitchy nervousness and bundled-up neuroses, persistently referring to himself in the plural for reasons that aren't very clear, even to himself (or is that, 'themselves?) Waltz is a bit of an odd duck, so putting him in as out protagonist is an uneasy, uncomfortable fit that may not work for viewers looking for an everyman to cling to in a chaotic world. Matt Damon has what amounts to an extended cameo as Management, whose wardrobe always matches whatever pattern is in the background, suggesting a chameleon-like nature that puts on whatever face that suits him in the moment in order to motivate his employees to do his work. Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer, Only Lovers Left Alive) gets a recurring role as a virtual therapist, trying to keep Qohen calm and focused, not because of genuine concern, but in order so that he can continue to concentrate on work. It doesn't take long to realize that this "shrink" is perhaps an even bigger bundle of anxiety than Qohen is.
Screenwriter Pat Rushin wrote this screenplay based on his earlier novella called "The Call", which he concocted after reading the Book of Ecclesiastes (yes, the one in the Bible), a lament from a man named Qoheleth (the Hebrew name is also the original title of Ecclesiastes, and the inspiration for the name of the man at the heart of this film) living in this real, lamenting the possibility of the meaningless of life, especially if the afterlife does not exist.
Gilliam's film works best when he eschews the wide-angle close-ups and persistent background distractions that keep us from being able to take in all of this new information. Moments of rest and contemplation are few, so when they do occur, the film does manage to hit a certain stride, particularly in the final third, when all of this cacophony of nervous energy begins to break apart and shift the tone into something mellower, reflective, and more substantial.
There are two main motifs espoused by Qohen that are perhaps the key to understanding his motivation: that he is waiting for a call and that he is dying. In a way, it's the call we're all waiting for -- the one that at the end of our lives that tells us whether the afterlife so many talk about is a real thing or whether there was never a call meant to happen to begin with. Qohen's call, he believes, is that knowledge he gets when he is finally released from the realm of the physical world, where he can finally transcend the monotony and claustrophobia of today's society and just spend eternity in blissful peace, as we envision the afterlife to be.
The Zero Theorem will likely be full of too many of Gilliam's idiosyncratic, abstract tendencies for mainstream viewers, who will likely be distanced immediately by the busy and oversaturated visuals and its seeming lack of effort at narrative cohesion. It's a messy and ADD-addled effort, but in its defense, it is showcasing a messy and ADD-addled world, so perhaps that's the point. Ironically, for a film in which so many put so much effort in trying to prove that everything is meaningless, this ostensibly nonsensical movie does start to make more sense the more effort one puts in to piecing all of its enigmatic parts together. Repeat viewings will likely reap rewards, but just getting through the first one may prove a futile task for those who dislike the eccentric black comedies Gilliam produces.
©2014 Vince Leo