In interviews, director Terry Gilliam has stated that The Zero Theorem is the final chapter of his dystopian sci-fi trilogy. Its two predecessors, Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, mean that The Zero Theorem has big shoes to fill, but it’s more psychological and personal than either of those pictures, a look into a depraved, depressed individual searching for himself in a confused and cluttered world. Call it Gilliam’s Synecdoche, New York if you will, as it shares much with Charlie Kaufman’s portrait of misery through the frustrating process of condensing the world into a single idea. In Synecdoche’s case, it is a play that encapsulates all of its creator’s life and struggles. In Zero Theorem, it is a theory that proves that life has no meaning.
Christoph Waltz plays Zero Theorem’s protagonist, Qohen (pronounced “Coen”) Leth, an oddball programmer who lives alone in an abandoned cathedral. Qohen’s personality is hard to pin down: he refers to himself as “we,” wanders around his home often without clothes, dreams of black holes and other ghastly images, and despite being diagnosed as physically well believes he is dying, with his only salvation being the hope of a phone call that will tell him what his life’s purpose is. After talking to his eccentric supervisor Joby (David Thelis) as well as “Management” (Matt Damon), his mysterious boss, Qohen is given the “Zero Theorem,” a project that sets out to show that the universe and everything in it is meaningless. Working at home, Qohen falls into madness, despair, and rage as he tries to prove the theory, accompanied by teenage tech wizard Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), an extravagant and giddy woman who tries to reactivate Qohen’s lagging spirits.
While it isn’t short of comic relief, The Zero Theorem is by no means a comedy. Rather, it’s tragedy contemplating man’s existence. As with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, The Zero Theorem parodies the pleasures and restrictions of a futuristic society (not to mention Gilliam’s exuberant direction and focus on detail, a trait he has carried since his animation days at Monty Python’s Flying Circus), but Zero Theorem’s portrayal of civilization isn’t too different than today’s culture. In the urban landscape Qohen inhabits, graffiti scrapes the sides of walls and ads follow pedestrians around the block. As The Zero Theorem continues, it becomes focused on technology’s role of overwhelming our lives as Qohen is stuck in Internet fantasies and false simulations of life.
It’s at this point where The Zero Theorem is most fantastical yet nightmarish and surreal. Much like Brazil, Zero Theorem’s conclusion ambiguously answers Qohen’s fate, yet provides even fewer answers. The second half of The Zero Theorem is frustrating, but also spellbinding for its hypnotic pacing and contemplation of the human mind. For what it’s worth, The Zero Theorem is just as illustrious and majestic as Brazil, perhaps relying too much on Gilliam’s past successes, but nevertheless a striking sci-fi picture.
Audiences are lucky when Gilliam releases a new film as it is becoming more and more rare by the year as studios grow stingier, but The Zero Theorem shows that Gilliam can still surprise and wow viewers.