Review of 'The Zero Theorem'

the_zero_theorem.jpg Another mind twister from Terry Gilliam's…unusual…imagination.

In a dystopian future a socially inept computer operator, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), lives and works alone in an old church. Qohen is an outsider dressed in pale clothes while the unrelenting modern civilization that surrounds him is a cacophony of sound and light. He is discontent with his work as he feels it does not provide him with any meaningful existence. For that, he is waiting for a return phone call from a person who had earlier in Qohen's life called and promised to provide him with this sense of purpose…until their conversation was cut off.

When Qohen is tasked by his boss Joby (David Thewlis) via Management (Matt Damon) to work on solving the “Zero Theorem” his life is turned upside down. The attractive young woman Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) shows up with an interest in becoming closer to Qohen, sharing virtual reality liaisons late in the evening, while “Bob” (Lucas Hedges), the gifted computer techie son of Management, moves in to the church alongside Qohen to help him solve the theorem. The Zero Theorem has caused previous people, including Joby, to breakdown with the sheer complexity and draining nature of the task so this is a challenge for the talented Qohen. In amongst all of these new events Qohen learns that the this theorem is meant to prove that all life in the universe “adds up to 0” so is, therefore, meaningless. This is repulsive to Qohen who continues to wait for the phone to ring and provide him with the meaning he so desperately craves…

I found this a visual and mentally stimulated treat. The story starts out a bit slow and uninteresting but very quickly the character of Qohen, as he comes out of his shell, becomes more and more likeable. I found myself sad for him in his seemingly fruitless search for existence (I can't say, without giving too much away, the ending alleviates this) and joy for him falling in love. Over Gilliam's previous “Brazil” the Zero Theorem is far clearer with a particular message (or messages) being communicated but it still ambiguous to warrant thinking and repeat viewings. As this is a Gilliam film the world is bizarre and difficult, at first, to understand but easily recognizable as our own taken to the extremes and slightly ahead of our time. I have to say, working in IT, trying to figure out exactly what Qohen was doing caused me a headache but I think this is not the point - the story is more about him being good at what he does and being asked to do something that appears to be impossible.

This colourful backdrop greatly enhances what is, really, quite a simple story. Some of the visual treats are incredible and, often, amusing: The suits that Matt Damon wears that match the fabrics around him, the incessant advertising that follows Qohen on buildings walls as he walks down the street, the wildly flamboyant clothing of, well, everyone, etc…There is so much to see and take in though it is a pity there is not more of it as it seems like quite a small movie not only in duration but in scope: The story is simple and we only glimpse a small corner of the surrounding world. Perhaps too small.

Having subsequently watched a few short documentaries on the making of this movie I learned that this was a labour of love, that many of the people involved did it simply because of Gilliam's involvement even though the budget was tiny. Even so, it is a short but evocative story that has a way of drawing you in as it progresses…I enjoyed it.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2016-01-16

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Studio: Voltage Pictures

Year: 2013

Length: 107 minutes

Genre: Science Fiction

Other reviewed films by Terry Gilliam: