Directed by: Terry Gilliam.
Written by: Pat Rushin.
Starring: Christoph Waltz (Qohen Leth), Mélanie Thierry (Bainsley), David Thewlis (Joby), Lucas Hedges (Bob), Matt Damon (Management), Ben Whishaw (Doctor 3), Tilda Swinton (Dr. Shrink-Rom), Sanjeev Bhaskar (Doctor 1), Peter Stormare (Doctor 2).
Whatever else you can say about Terry Gilliam, you have to admit that the man sticks to his guns, and makes films that are strange and undeniably his own. Sometimes, like in Brazil (1985), 12 Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) that means a genuinely great film. Other times, like Tideland and The Brothers Grimm (both 2005) – that means a terrible one. But even his failures are at the very least interesting – they are honorable failures, and if Gilliam doesn’t always hit what he’s aiming for, you have to admire him for at least trying. Unfortunately his latest film, The Zero Theorem, while not as bad as Tideland or The Brothers Grimm is far closer to them in quality than his masterpieces. It doesn’t even come close to the level of something wonderfully weird as his last film – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It’s a film full of ideas, but unfortunately they seem like half thought out ones than something more. His cast is committed, and his visuals are typical Gilliam – which means undeniably beautiful and unique. But after a while, you realize the film is really an empty vessel.
The movie takes place in the not too distant future, where the inventively named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) works as some sort of computer hacker (how any of the technology he uses works it not explained – which is probably for the best. He’s the best the company has got – but he’s terribly anti-social and wants to work from home. He is eventually able to convince Management (Matt Damon) – to allow him to do that. Management even gives him his own pet project – The Zero Theorem – to work on. Management thinks that if Qohen is successful, he will somehow be able to prove that all human existence is meaningless. But Qohen is not able to concentrate on his work even at home. He meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) – a beautiful, younger woman who seems to like him, and he has no idea how to respond. Management also sends over his brilliant teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges). Plus, his heart isn’t into it – he doesn’t really want to prove that everything is meaningless just as he has found love – if that is what he and Bainsley have.
The movie has a lot of talk – too much really – about the nature of the technology and humanity’s dependence on it, and the effects of that dependence. It’s a rather obvious message – that we would all be better if we simply unplugged instead of spending all of our time in front of screens, communicating with people they never actually see instead of interacting with those around us. It’s a timely message – and one that cannot be delivered often enough, considering how many people seem not to understand it – but it’s one that Gilliam beats into the audience’s heads pretty much from first frame to last.
Gilliam has always been better at world building than narrative. And the world he builds in The Zero Theorem is visually stunning from beginning to end – a hyperactive, candy color dystopia where everyone thinks everything is perfect – until of course, Qohen starts digging. He is great when it’s just him and a computer – and that’s the way he wants it – but when he stops being simply distracted by Bainsley and Bob, and actually connects with them on an emotional level – he realizes he wants something more – or at least the illusion of something more. Waltz is brilliant – or at least as brilliant as he can be in the role, which is a relief because I was starting to believe that he was always going to be lost outside of a Tarantino movie. To be great in a Gilliam movie, you have to commit to the weirdness, and he does that just fine. Matt Damon is very good as Management as well – his costumes are genius. Thierry is fine as Bainsley, even if she never rises above the level of female perfection personified – although that’s kind of the point of her character.
All The Zero Theorem really needed was a story – or at least more than its one very obvious theme – to connect all of that weirdness. At his best, Gilliam is able to pull that off. The Zero Theorem is far from Gilliam at his best. It proves he can still direct something weird and visually stunning. Now, he just needs to find a story worthy of that visual talent. The Zero Theorem isn’t it.