THE ZERO THEOREM Movie Review – Ambitious Sci-Fi That Misses The Mark
As far as science fiction goes, Brazil is one of the best. Terry Gilliam created a satirical look at a future that was dominated by technology, the consequences of which were both hilarious and terrifying. Almost thirty years on, the illustrious British director has returned to familiar territory with his latest release The Zero Theorem. Like Brazil, this is a science fiction satire that serves as an allegory for our relationship with a world governed by technology. It’s another cinematic world that is built with low-fi aesthetics and seen through the eccentric and colourful vision of Gilliam. However, as much as Gilliam might try and recreate his 1985 masterpiece, The Zero Theorem doesn’t even come close to Brazil in quality.
The Zero Theorem tells the story a computer hacker named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) who is crunching data for the business Mancom. Several years ago, Leth received a phone call that he believes held the answer to the meaning of life, but in his excitement dropped the receiver and broke the connection. Today, he lives in a busy future where advertisement has run out of control, technology has seemingly taken over, and the world as we know it has descended into chaos. He believes that he will one day receive a call back and waits in solitude, hiding in the confines of an old abandoned church, for the answer. Leth is told he will receive the answer by Mancom’s president, who goes only by the name Management (Matt Damon), under one condition: he works on deciphering The Zero Theorem.
The Zero Theorem is a complex algorithm that will, once and for all, confirm that the world is indeed chaos. There is no order; there is no meaning. Qohen Leth throws himself into this job, only distracted by the unwanted appearances of Management’s son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and the lusty Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). But in secluding himself from the world and seeing the people around him as little more than an interference, all in order to wait for the answer to life’s meaning, Leth ends up experiencing a meaningless existence.
The irony between spending your life searching for meaning that may not exist and therefore living a life that is essentially meaningless is an ambitious theme. However, the way that The Zero Theorem approaches it and the story it constructs in order to emphasise it are problematic.
The satirical vision of the future that Terry Gilliam has built here is incredibly captivating, but it never feels like a fully formed cinematic world. Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time, like Leth, confined within the walls of his church. We don’t get a chance to see much of the life that Leth is missing out on as he toils away, driven to the point of insanity, by the aforementioned theorem.
Qohen Leth himself is an interesting protagonist, performed with a shyness and awkwardness that we don’t often see from the charismatic Christoph Waltz. However, the ensemble that surround him are generally cartoonish. Gilliam’s characters are always eccentric, yes, but they have a dramatic purpose that is more or less missing from The Zero Theorem. Be it Tilda Swinton’s Dr. Shrink or David Thewlis’ Mancom supervisor Joby, they have no reason to exist here beyond showcasing their quirky qualities. They are as much an irritating interference from the narrative as they are an irritating interference to Leth’s introverted existence. The only redeeming factors are a few moving scenes with Bob and Bainsley towards the finale that emphasise how much Leth has wasted his life – and like his own realisation, they come much too late.
However, it’s the narrative itself that really lets The Zero Theorem down. The big ideas are too scattered to ever manifest into any kind of coherent story. It’s muddled to point that it’s difficult to maintain your involvement.
The Zero Theorem ultimately aims high and misses the mark. Respect should be given to Terry Gilliam for his spirit, attempting to tell a story with a big theme and via a style that to this day remains quintessentially his own. At the end of the day, it’s far more satisfying to watch a movie that tries hard and fails than a movie that simply doesn’t try at all. As much as there are problems, at least they’re ones born out of an inability to meet its grand ambitions rather than a lack of ambition whatsoever. However, that doesn’t disguise the fact that, sadly, there are monumental flaws in The Zero Theorem. It’s a perplexing and exhausting experience.