The Zero Theorem
Film Title: The Zero Theorem
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton
Running Time: 107 min
Gifted “entity-cruncher” Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is reassigned by Management (Matt Damon) to work from home on solving the near-impossible Zero Theorem. A solitary hacker who refers to himself as “we”, Qohen dutifully retreats to the randomly cluttered old church he calls home to work on a problem that his middle-man supervisor (David Thewlis) summarises as: “Everything adds up to nothing.”
Qohen consults virtual psychiatrist Dr Shrink-rom (Tilda Swinton), plugs in – romantically speaking – to blonde sex worker Bainsley (The Princess of Montpensier’s Mélanie Thierry) and awaits a phone call that he hopes will explain absolutely everything.
Unhappily for Qohen, he’s the hero of a dystopian Terry Gilliam picture. So the viewer can be sure that his quest will end only in uncertainty.
For more than 40 years, the Monty Python animator has enlivened the visual arts with his cheeky brand of steampunk. The Zero Theorem arrives with the expected clatter of wacky visual cues: an organ for a bed, the Church of Batman the Redeemer, street signs prohibiting everything from walking to having a dog.
The humorous presentation offsets the familiarity of this particular Orwellian nightmare: by now, Gilliam’s oeuvre has been so influential one can’t help but think of that old gag concerning the apocryphal theatregoer: “That Hamlet was full of cliches.”
Unsurprisingly, Gilliam’s surreal 1985 masterpiece Brazil casts a long shadow over the new film. Made for a comparatively tiny budget ($8.5 million), The Zero Theorem lacks the momentum and symmetry of its spiritual predecessor.
Waltz is marvellous as a conduit for distress, but even his grand performance can’t quite hold the film’s many aesthetic and philosophical diversions together. Scale is an issue. Most of the action is confined to Qohen’s quarters. Add Gilliam’s trademark wide-lensing, and the effect is airless and suffocating.
It hardly matters. Gilliam is frequently (and not unreasonably) characterised as the Unluckiest Man in Show Business. Many of his long-awaited projects have fallen by the wayside; others, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, didn’t do the business they deserved. A Terry Gilliam film, when it does arrive, is something to cherish and behold.
And besides, with Gilliam, ramshackle is all part of the appeal.