Review: ‘The Zero Theorem’

DIRECTED by Terry Gilliam
STARRING Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw

Now in Select Theaters & VOD

There are many haunting juxtapositions in The Zero Theorem and they begin almost immediately. A bald, naked man sits at a desk staring into an advanced computer screen of celestial abyss. He’s magnetized beneath a crucifix that hangs from the rafters of his living quarters, a dark, gothic cathedral. The statue’s head has been replaced by a Big-Brother-like-agency camera, known as Management, adding a new emphasis to the term “God’s eye.”

Qohen Leth, played by Christoph Waltz, is the frail man’s name, and his daily commute to work is a chaotic sprawl in a dystopic, neon-accented city. His job is demanding and uninspiring. He’s forced to “crunch codes” in a complex database requiring manic maneuvering of video-game like controls and lots of test tubes. The corporation is called Mancon, and its slogan, “making sense of the good things in life,” is more than ironic considering the existential crisis our protagonist will soon discover.

ZT_ONESHEET_RGB 2This is director Terry Gilliam’s latest exercise in despotic fantasy and here, more than his recent films, you sense a recycling of material. The Zero Theorem exudes both Brazil’s thematic landscape and the feverish aesthetic of his Monty Python animation. You expect a quirky artistry with him. The outside of Qohen’s church is spray-painted “Batman The Redeemer,” conversations are captured with Dutch angles, and the city’s electronic billboards follow its citizens around every corner. People dance at parties with their iPhone earbuds. Matt Damon, playing Management, shows up with a wardrobe that matches wherever he sits or stands.

He enables Qohen on the nearly impossible mission of crunching the Zero Theorem, a calculation aimed to prove that “everything adds up to nothing,” a particular grim notion for a man of faith. Under careful watch, Qohen quickly meets a cast of characters that both interrupt and accelerate this duty. There’s Joby (David Thewlis), Qohen’s temporary work supervisor, Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management’s precocious son, and Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), a software therapist, all of whom provide equal measures of irritation in their aim to aid Qohen, who we later find has been waiting for a phone call to supply him the meaning of his life.

Perhaps most important is Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a seductive blonde temptress that procures Qohen’s dormant sexuality. She sidetracks his constant worry– fulfilling his damning project– with a romantic virtual reality. It’s doubles as a porn site but ignites his senses. A version of Radiohead’s “Creep” filters through the loading page as if to scare him away. But the weirder layers to this cryptic calculation only add to a tedious confusion and a frustration with Qohen’s incomprehension. Even in all the color, comedy, and chaos, Gilliam, with a script from Pat Rushin, lacks coordination.

Maybe that’s inevitable with these familiar themes. But this film, like the incessant computer arithmetic, is a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are bright and messy, spread out and perplexing. You don’t have any perspective until you stand back and see everything come together. It’s a mystifying experience, but you’re still not quite sure what you’re looking at.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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