Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis
Genre: Drama/ Comedy/ Sci-Fi
In the future, Qohen Leth is a number cruncher working for a large corporation known as Mancom who is particularly dissatisfied with life. Referring to himself in the plural, Qohen continually asks his supervisor (Thewlis) permission to be off sick from work so he can stay home and wait for a phone call that he believes will reveal to him the meaning of his existence. Management (Matt Damon) allows Qohen to stay home, but only if he works on a mysterious programme solving and proving ‘The Zero Theorem’ to prove that everything is in fact, nothing. Joining Qohen are a young geek (Lucas Hedges) and sex bomb Bainsley (Thierry) who may either be an intentional help or hindrance.
Make sense? No, I thought not. Well this is Terry Gilliam doing that Terry Gilliam thing. While The Zero Theorem will not win him any new fans, it reminds us as to why he has a unique approach and certainly an eye for visual flair. He is no stranger to dystopia and whenever Quohen takes a step outside, is at work or looking at a computer screen the mise-en-scène is brimful of striking visuals. Repeat viewings are certainly necessary to see everything as there is so much constantly going in and a rapid rate which is of course a Gilliam visual trademark.
Working with a very small budget, Gilliam and his set designers had to be creative. Like many directors of his DNA, Gilliam works best with a small budget and no greedy execs breathing down his back (The Brothers Grimm, anyone?) and it certainly shows as they have created a visually immersive and engaging world filled with plenty of humour and satire.
Whereas dystopian Gilliam films such as Brazil and 12 Monkeys had an engaging and rewarding narrative, unfortunately it is in terms of its narrative that The Zero Theorem does fall a little short. There are most certainly some great, relevant and poignant ideas within the narrative and the visuals (some too glaringly obvious), but they most certainly struggle to fill the (short for Gilliam) 107 minutes. Some dialogue heavy scenes feel overwritten and slow, with Pat Rushin’s script feeling very repetitive and I hate to say it, boring.
The dialogue also lets the characters down. Appearing in literally every scene Christoph Waltz, is solid but in my view a little miscast. There is no doubt he is a fantastically talented actor but at his best when playing extroverted and eccentric characters, Qohen is the polar opposite of that and Waltz in my view does not quite pull of the vulnerability and internal conflict off so well. Of course the slightly lacklustre and repetitive script does not help, but Qohen is not quite the engaging protagonist that would be necessary for The Zero Theorem to be a far more rounded experience. Perhaps having to spend every scene with Qohen does not help.
However, the supporting characters fair better in my view. Hedges and Thierry’s characters start off a little annoying but come into their own as the narrative develops, emerging as sympathetic characters of depth. It is to their credit that when neither are around and it is just Qohen moping around in his church that they are missed. Meanwhile David Thewlis is good fun doing his best Eric Idle impression and Tilda Swinton is suitably bizarre as a Scottish virtue shrink.
Of course there is plenty of humour, satire and philosophical ideas; some having more resonance than others as the narrative develops. The final third does not contain much of an emotional pay off as it is all pretty obvious and many of the themes and ideas within the narrative either feel over emphasised or underdeveloped and too subtle for their own good. However there is enough relevant satire there to keep us thinking about and questioning our own lives, but there is no denying that the entire film lacks any linear feeling, making it a stop-start pick ‘n’ mix that just does not quite fit well enough to be up there with Gilliam’s best. It is however great to see him once again making a film on his own terms.
Though slightly flawed, ponderous and not working so well as a narrative whole, The Zero Theorem has just enough substance, satirical ideas and striking visuals to still be worth watching for Gilliam fans.