Terry Gilliam fans (a club of which I certainly count myself as a charter member) have had to be a patient lot for quite a few years now as the iconoclastic and irreverent director has made a string of films that seemed to find him struggling with his craft and even motivation to make movies. I’m happy to say that The Zero Theorem is a much better experience than often painful sits like The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the greatness of his earlier pictures. Yet, the movie finds him in a bit of a comfort zone, working with themes and situations that he’s excelled with in the past, and the whole thing is held together by a poignant lead performance from Christoph Waltz.
Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a reclusive and perhaps mentally unstable computer genius who lives in solitude in a ruined church, refers to himself as “we,” and goes to work for a massive corporation called Mancom, which seems to more or less rule over the dystopian society in which Leth lives. Leth’s job there is “crunching entities,” but outside of his work, he is desperately lonely and waits for a phone call — a follow-up to a call he missed years ago — that he thinks will bring some sort of meaning to his life. Invited to a party by supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), Leth comes face to face with Management (Matt Damon), the enigmatic head of Mancom who wants Leth to solve the Zero Theorem –an equation that will essentially prove that all of life is meaningless.
Allowed to work at home full-time, Leth sets about his task but is continually interrupted by an online therapist named Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), Bob (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of Management, and Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a beautiful young woman who seems intent on seducing Leth — at least in a shared virtual reality world, if not physically. As Bob drops clues about the true nature of Leth’s work and as Leth begins to fall in love with Bainsley, his life does begin to take on meaning after all — or at least he seems to think so.
If sounds in many ways like Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil (1985), The Zero Theorem is in many ways a modern successor to that film, featuring a lonely corporate drone who, given a mission by his employers precisely because he will not question them, starts to wake up to his own humanity and desires as a result. While the dystopia of that earlier film was a hybrid of mid-20th century technology and a vaguely Orwellian future, The Zero Theorem’s world is a sharp commentary on our own: the poor shuffle along the streets while high-tech ads relentlessly follow everyone on moving digital billboards (watch for a cameo or two — one of them quite sad — in those ads, by the way). Leth, like Brazil’s Sam, wants to be left alone to get on with his work, but human relationships keep getting through his defenses and under his skin — only to be cruelly ripped away again.
There are other thematic concerns here too, including personal ones. Leth’s struggle against Mancom is much like Gilliam’s own against a studio system that has never known what to make of him. Leth’s retreat into his own inner world — one which seems to exist somewhere between life and death in either his mind or a digital construct — is perhaps akin to Gilliam’s own gradual disappearance from the larger public consciousness into a smaller, more eccentric sphere of his own. The Neural Net Mancive, the massive computer hosting every “entity” that Mancom has ever crunched, is clearly a stand-in for our own 24/7 connectivity to the Internet, for better or worse.
With all this and the usual Gilliam penchants for oddball humor, plenty of Dutch angles and surreal visuals, what holds The Zero Theorem back? Simply the fact that the director (working with screenwriter Pat Rushin) doesn’t seem to have any new insights into any of this material. Leth’s existential angst is well-worn fodder, as is the society in which he exists, and while the movie is entertaining it almost feels as if Gilliam is remaking or paying tribute to his own earlier work than breaking any new ground.
What does elevate it is Waltz. Normally the chilliest of actors, the German Oscar-winner starts out almost totally inaccessible as Leth, his shaved head and lack of eyebrows giving him an alien appearance, but soon reveals both the depth of his despair and his genuine emotional needs. It is in many ways the warmest and eventually most human and tragic performance Waltz has given (at least since he broke out of Germany with Inglourious Basterds), and brings a resonance to The Zero Theorem that may save the film from feeling much more stale.
His supporting cast is less well-served with Swinton playing a cross between her role in Snowpiercer and the “salt” girl in Brazil, while Thierry gets almost nothing to do except prance around enticingly in sexy, skimpy outfits until a scene late in the film finally gives her and Waltz something real to play. Lucas Hedges is good as Bob’s son, who has some unexpected layers to him, but as his dad, Damon is just there as a favor to his old pal Terry.
Made on a budget, The Zero Theorem never quite becomes as expansive as perhaps it should, but at the same time it does have the handmade feel that Gilliam films possess and which is a rare element in any film these days. The Zero Theorem was never going to be the kind of movie that plays multiplexes or gets sponsorship tie-ins with fast food companies, so there’s an off-kilter quality to it that some adventurous audiences may appreciate and others dismiss. For the rest of us, the Gilliam brigade, the movie gives our lives meaning again — perhaps the master is coming out of his long and disappointing funk.
The Zero Theorem is out now on VOD and in limited theatrical release.