Any new Terry Gilliam film is automatically a must-see for me, so it was with some excitement that I approached The Zero Theorem – a surreal, darkly comic, cyberpunk inquiry into the meaning of life. Quite honestly I can’t make up my mind if I liked the film or not.
Set at some undetermined point in future, the plot concerns Qohen (Christoph Waltz), a data analyst at “Mancom”, who believes he will one day receive some kind of divine phone call informing him of his purpose in life. Referring to himself constantly as “we”, Qohen seems to not be operating on all cylinders. He is an obsessive isolationist living in a converted church, and he doesn’t seem to mind being under constant surveillance from his corporate overlord (Matt Damon, whose character is simply called “Management”). Because of his efficiency, Qohen is given a new task: proving a seemingly impossible equation entitled the Zero Theorem. Said theorem has previous caused problems for other employees, including his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) who was subsequently promoted because he couldn’t analyse data anymore.
What follows is an examination of faith versus atheism, via virtual reality, twisted half-baked Christian allegories, cybersex and the regulation Gilliam weirdness. On a visual and subject matter level, the film has many of the director’s tics and trademarks; dystopian futures, corporate satire, a hatred for dehumanising bureaucracy, an iconoclastic treatment of religious belief, “Dutch” camera angles, spectacular sets, stunning art direction and so forth. Performances are good, not just from Waltz but also from supporting characters such as Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a corporate prostitute assigned to assist Qohan, Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management’s sort-of Christ allegory son, and Dr Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), a particularly amusing virtual psychiatrist.
Gilliam’s films are not for everyone, and certainly this one – especially the finale – will frustrate many. Personally, I’m still making up my mind about the film. It appears to be a determined statement that there is no God and everything is meaningless. Or is it? There’s a little element of doubt thrown into the mix too, that perhaps suggest there might be a God after all. Or if there isn’t, perhaps it’s worth believing in one all the same to give one’s life meaning. Whatever the intention behind Gilliam’s deliberately enigmatic approach, it certainly provokes thought – if only thought as to whether the film has something interesting to say, or whether it’s a case of the emperor having no clothes. That’s what I can’t quite decide.
However there is one moment of background detail I absolutely loved: a wall of endless red circular strike-through signs detailing prohibited activities, which don’t just include smoking but ice-creams, cuddling and a whole raft of equally absurd things. As a comment on nanny state culture, this was highly amusing.
In addition to the general weirdness warning always appropriate to Terry Gilliam, I should probably add a warning for sexual content and bad language too. If you like his previous films, you might like this. If you don’t like his previous films (for the uninitiated, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas amongst others) you almost certainly won’t like this either.