‘The Zero Theorem’ Just Doesn’t Add Up

GameStop, Inc.

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Back in 1985, Terry Gilliam made a film that was a biting commentary on its times that somehow gains more relevance year after year. Inspired equally by Fellini and Orwell, Brazil had its eye on the future as much as the present. After hitting a rocky patch in securing financing and not upsetting the ever-fickle gods of cinema, Terry Gilliam is back with The Zero Theorem, a film in the same vein as Brazil yet misses its goal. It never strikes the proper balance between razor sharp satire of the zeitgeist and its own brazen theology.

Qohen (Christoph Waltz) works as an entity sorter for Mancom, a telecommunications giant in a strange dystopian world. Mancom is run by Management (Matt Damon), whose face emblazens signs reminding workers that “Everything is Under Control.” Qohen tries to talk to his supervisor, Toby (David Thewlis), about the possibilities of working from home. One day long ago, Qohen received a call which he believes will explain his purpose in life, the phone had become disconnected and he anxiously awaits the next call like some await the Rapture. A tireless and efficient worker, Qohen soon is assigned to the Zero Theorem, which no one has solved and drives those who work on it mad. Soon Qohen’s existence is intruded by Bob (Lucas Hedges), the son of management, and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a telecom call girl. Days, weeks, months, and years pass as Qohen dives deeper and deeper into a theory designed to prove the all-encompassing nothingness of existence.

The Zero Theorem is very much a Terry Gilliam film – exaggerated wide angle lenses, tilted angles, and a caustic sense of satire. Every frame of the film is bustling with eye candy. It actually may be overstuffed. Early in the film, it’s difficult to keep up with the barrage of information, of not only the characters and their goals, but this bizarre world that they inhabit. Advertising is personalized and follows people down the street. The costumes and settings pop off the screen in bright neon colors, while pop soaked advertisements bustle for Occupy Wall Street. For all the flash and barbs that fill this world, Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin never give it a human feel. It’s sorely lacking something stronger to connect to. Partly by design, the film’s attempt to connect Qohen and Bainsley never have anything resembling a human connection.

From a theological angle, The Zero Theorem is rife with religious parody and themes. Walking the streets there are advertisments for The Church of Batman the Redeemer and The Church of Intelligent Design. Qohen clings to his own unique faith, the waiting for the telephone call. Living in a church once occupied by monks who took vows of silence and celibacy, Qohen was able to purchase the building after the vow wasn’t broken to yell, “Fire!” In an interesting piece of art, the statue of Jesus that remains has a surveillance camera in the place of Christ’s head. All of these themes come crashing down in the end as the film opts for an acerbic cynicism. The final revelation is lacking because of its nihilism, which is pretty much the point.

The Zero Theorem isn’t a disaster or an awful movie, just disappointing. I know Gilliam can do better because he has repeatedly done better. It is a Terry Gilliam film, obviously, but even with its number of solid laughs and an appearance by my spirit animal, Tilda Swinton, it just falls short. The flashes of brilliance make its shortcomings all the more disappointing, though I think it’s impossible to piece together the whole picture in one viewing. It can’t all be nothing. Can it?

 

 

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