Stop me if you’ve heard this one already: a low-level cog in a comically large bureaucratic environment in a grotesque-looking “future” dystopia struggles in the face of obsolescence and oblivion. The character in question is fundamentally good, but incredibly weedy, their resolve and spirit having been ground to stumps by the world around them. People come in and out of the protagonist’s surroundings either to goad them into just rolling with the Orwellian punches, or to pull them out of a tight spot in a bizarre or humorous way. The ‘hero’ also creates elaborate fantasies and ideas to inhabit as a coping mechanism. If this sounds familiar, that’s because these broad plot points describe Terry Gilliam’s towering 1985 bad-vibes masterpiece Brazil. It also more or less describes his latest, The Zero Theorem, and that’s where the problems begin.
Christoph Waltz, shaved bare and frequently naked, stars as Qohen Leth, a computer whiz tapped by a shady, seemingly omniscient figure known as Management to try and solve the titular theorem. Said equation, if resolved, would prove that existence itself has no meaning. This doesn’t go over well with Leth, who has spent a number of years waiting for a phone call that will give his life a purpose; a literal calling, if you will. His new task basically amounts to working towards his own invalidation, which is just one of the many paradoxes the film is enamored with. Another one is the fact that Leth is characterized as a strange hybrid of Luddite and techie, a skilled technician with a desire to get away from everything, but who ultimately cannot. One of the through-lines of the film is the inability to completely disconnect from the grid, whether deliberately or not. But the way it goes about doing that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how people use technology, whereby those who are fully immersed in personal tech live life through a proxy, never doing or feeling anything “real,” as the film puts it.
Real shmeal. The Zero Theorem falls prey to the boomer notion of a “real experience,” whereby if something doesn’t happen in the “real world,” it might as well not have happened at all. Yet the truest, most human moments of the film don’t happen in meat-space per se. Sure, this can be read as an cruel ironic joke or yet another paradox, but in the context of this film it reads like bungled satire. It’s as if The Zero Theorem doesn’t know what it wants to say, so it just says whatever it has heard about the topic at hand at a very high volume and hopes that some of it sticks. That loudness is at times quite effective, though: once Leth leaves his home to go to work, everything is loud as hell. The colours are garish, the soundtrack peaks, and the sound mixing is beyond dense. The Zero Theorem’s greatest asset is its production design and mise-en-scène. The world outside Qohen’s home is a circus of clashing patterns and sounds, so shockingly busy and luminous that the eye often has nowhere to rest. The whole movie is shot with Gilliam’s trademark off-kilter angles and weird close-ups, with security footage and screenshots interspersed for texture. The world is also littered with interesting sets that feel like modern art installations, like a giant X made up of many small warning signs, or the intro video to a porn website that resembles Kayne West’s maximalist “Power” video.
Maximalism is a good way to describe the film’s look overall: the contrast between Qohen’s dank home base (which is a chapel, as if to hammer home the monastic comparisons) and everything else makes it feel like we’re seeing the world through the eyes of someone who can’t process stimuli. It looks amazing, but it still feels like a movie written by a man in his fifties who is in constant contact with young people he doesn’t get. To Gilliam’s credit, though, that man isn’t him; that would be writer Pat Rushin, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida. Knowing this, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is basically about those damn kids and their smartphones.
If Brazil was Gilliam’s 1984, then The Zero Theorem is his stab at Brave New World, a look inside a world that has gotten fat with diversion and ease of access to damn near everything. But the film undermines its satire with muddy ideology and philosophy that feels tossed-off rather than integrated; having rave-goers walk around with iPads or taking selfies during a party does not a great satire make. A film about trying to prove the intrinsic worth (or worthlessness, as it were) of humanity by crunching numbers has a built-in Waiting for Godot quality to it, and the film works best when it exploits that vibe. But overall, those ideas are squandered on the kind of cynicism-masquerading-as-humanism that Gilliam himself pulled off much better once upon a time. It’s basically the movie equivalent of that person we all know who says “I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist.”
— Derek Godin