Though writer Pat Rushin scripted and conceived the story of The Zero Theorem, one can be forgiven for assuming Terry Gilliam came up with the narrative himself, being that it comes across as the work of someone who either saw every film Gilliam’s ever made or just happened to direct them. Indeed, The Zero Theorem sees Gilliam very much in his storytelling and thematic comfort zones, though sadly to diminishing returns. It openly scrounges scraps from earlier efforts, especially Brazil, but has little idea how to develop its ever so slightly different ideas beyond thin sketches.
Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is the jittery, button-pushing outsider of The Zero Theorem’s particular near-future dystopia. Eager to become a work-at-home employee, his attempts at a disability claim see him assigned to work on the titular theorem by the mysterious, sinister Management (played by a big name, former Gilliam star whose identity will not be spoiled here). The theorem is a hopelessly complex formula that may reveal the meaning of life. This is of particular interest to Qohen, who wildly alternates between pessimistic and optimistic extremes throughout the feature. Companions of sorts in his pursuit include young hacker Bob (Moonrise Kingdom co-star Lucas Hedges), supervisor and friend of sorts Joby (David Thewlis, almost channelling Gilliam’s Monty Python colleague Eric Idle), and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a mysterious online sex worker who takes an avid interest in Qohen. Tilda Swinton also makes amusing appearances as a Scottish shrink avatar that consoles Qohen through his computer.
To the film’s credit, Waltz gives a committed lead turn, and much of the supporting cast gets one or two amusing bits to work with. The standard imaginative production design of a Gilliam film is also on display even within the confines of a budget of less than $10 million, with great use made of an abandoned church that Qohen calls home. So much of it, however, feels a waste, as the through line of The Zero Theorem proves too frequently monotonous, its ragged charm in spots unable to prop up the trite, half-baked jabs at various satirical targets.
Rather than the political surveillance looked at in Brazil, corporate surveillance is the primary focus, though the film’s weak digs at both that and the impersonal nature of our online modern age lack any of the bite of the earlier film. Exploration of the latter idea certainly isn’t helped by the writing of Bainsley, a character lacking in any agency of her own. Thierry is victim to an uncomfortable amount of fetishistic objectification, present even outside of the few scenes in which it contextually makes a little sense. Kim Griest’s well-rounded, independent heroine is just one of the ways in which Brazil still has punch today as a key science fiction work; The Zero Theorem, an effort that never excels, is a light shove at best.
— Josh Slater-Williams