It comes as no surprise at this point that Terry Gilliam’s latest directorial effort, The Zero Theorem, is a tad bizarre. Gilliam is almost unparalleled when it comes to crafting strangely nightmarish dystopias akin to the sort shown in the masterpiece that was Brazil and the feverishly confused time-travel epic of Twelve Monkeys. Many see The Zero Theorem as the unofficial final chapter in this already unofficial trilogy, but it unfortunately drops the ball as its un-cohesive plot and deliberately obtuse scripting leave it feeling fragmented and more than a little hollow.
Our story tails Qohen (Christoph Waltz), a hairless introvert computer whiz tasked with cracking the code to the meaning of life by Matt Damon’s bleach-blonde Management. Much of the film follows Qohen’s breakdown at the hands of this titular Zero Theorem, whilst he is forced to deal with Lucas Hedges’ junior tech genius and Mélanie Thierry’s bizarre take on the usually typical “tart with a heart” role. It’s a plot that spends much of its time thematically leaping all over the place, almost like it’s daring you to try and pin it down.
The film gets off to a spectacularly jumbled start, bouncing a cue-ball shaven Waltz around a hell of Smart Cars and acid-nightmare Vivienne Westwood rejects spurting deliberately confusing dialogues. Whilst we should be being eased to Gilliam’s latest exercise in world building, we are instead hurled headlong into a whirlwind of stuff and things that make very little sense to the abject newcomer.
The dialogue is deliberately contrived – with Waltz spending much of the film referring to himself in the third person – and leaves you feeling alienated rather than enlightened. This kind of high-concept film shouldn’t hold your hand, but neither should it feel the need to deliberately throw you off. From then on, the movie progresses from a jumble, through a brief lull in activity and then on into a confused mess. When the storyline should be settling down to find its feet, Gilliam keeps forcing in new ideas and characters until it feels more like a case of throwing stuff at a wall to see what sticks than a collected whole. There is a very fine line between being archly original and just seeming weird for the sake of it.
Luckily, the performances are consistently good, with Damon out of his usual comfort zone for a cameo that’s as amusing as it is unfortunately brief. Waltz is also extremely good, handling some potentially messy dialogue to showcase a more human side than his previous significant roles have allowed him. Unfortunately, it seems every time that an emotional chord is struck, something or someone bizarre (often literally) bursts through the door to tug your attention selsewhere. On the few occasions when the film’s beating heart does break through, it reveals the better and much smaller film underneath – the more personal story of a lonely guy, isolated by technology, trying to be a bit less lonely.
That isn’t to say that The Zero Theorem is without merit. The typical Gilliam weirdness is present and correct and – as always- is a great bit of fun to witness. This is a film far from short on the madcap bizarreness of the auteur’s heyday. Where a lesser actress would have been a mix of dull and irritating, Thierry’s oddball performance as a walking, whirling ball of childish petulance and strange pronunciations manages to joyfully reflect this vision. There are also some great pieces of visual and stylistic comedy, with (among others) quite a few well-meaning hurled barbs at The Matrix that manage to tread carefully on the correct side of self reference.
The biggest problem with The Zero Theorem is the issue that sits in its very title. This is a piece of dystopian sci-fi where the great concept at its center literally and figuratively amounts to nothing – the very idea of addressing life’s paradox is in itself a paradox, it’s like watching a movie try to eat itself. Just as its main character spends much of the film chasing mathematical shadows, the audience is stuck trying to collect a whole bunch of ideas that never quite fit together.
The greatest pieces of science fiction manage to address grand designs whilst always keeping one eye on the smaller picture. Though it’s never uninteresting and frequently charming, by the time the credits roll on The Zero Theorem you realize that the film lost track of both a long time ago.
Undoubtedly the director's latest fever-dream of style, Gilliam's The Zero Theorem never quite takes the time to get its substance together.