Terry Gilliam's sci-fi satire 'The Zero Theorem' is a visual stunner with little to say
The Zero Theorem Amplify
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon
Rated R / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
More than anything else, The Zero Theorem seems to be a movie about its own production design. I don't necessarily mean this as a bad thing. The production design is spectacular. It is, after all, a Terry Gilliam movie, and like every Terry Gilliam movie, it's a visual feast.
But the production design in particular - courtesy of David Warren, alongside art director Adrian Curelea and set decorators Jille Azis and Gina Stancu - seems to tell the whole story. Or is the whole story. It creates Gilliam's satirized, candy-colored version of 21st Century living, depicted primarily in two locations - an "office" building that looks more like a labyrinthine video arcade inside a mall, and a home dwelling constructed out of an abandoned chapel. There's also a virtual-reality tropical beach with a permanent sunset and an oppressively noisy (visually and sonically) downtown that looks like a hallucinogenic version of the dystopian cityscapes from Blade Runner and Children of Men crossed with a Toys-R-Us aisle during Christmas.
Once again, Gilliam is targeting modern life - in all its strangeness and alienation - in a satirical excursion into the big questions about the essence of human existence. Or at least the existence of one human, a depressed number-cruncher named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). But I'm afraid, in this case, Gilliam doesn't have a whole lot to say, about life generally or modern life specifically. He's crafted a satire that never quite works its way up to a point. That he couches it all in an existential quest for meaning makes it easy to mistake the film for having greater depth than it does; but frankly, searching for the meaning of life is a pretty empty canard by now. Especially for a film whose context doesn't provide much insight.
Which brings me back to the production design. The sets and locations are absolutely filled with amazing visualizations that make small (sometimes obvious) points about technology, government, religion, sex, capitalism, what have you. But they never add up to a larger one - nor, strangely, a particularly unique vision of 21st Century civilization. The details in the set and costume design are memorable for their own sake - not for the sake of The Zero Theorem as a whole. (I'm sure there's a labored joke to be made about a movie involving an impossible-to-decipher mathematical formula not adding up to the sum of its parts, but I'm not the guy to make it.)
In the end, I'm not sure if it's a matter of Pat Rushin's script being too thin for the heady material, or Gilliam himself simply not being as interesting or insightful about the state of the human condition circa 2014 as he was in 1985. Whatever the case, the movie's elaborate technological fantasia sometimes comes across as a collection of old-fashioned fears about the Internet, video games, social media and cell phones. It obviously opened up some imaginative possibilities for Gilliam and his creative team, but it's disappointingly lightweight.
I'm conflicted about the final result, not just because I love Gilliam, but because - lightweight or not - there are so many little things to appreciate and enjoy here. (A thin Terry Gilliam movie is still a Terry Gilliam movie, dammit.) I was enamored, for example, with the absurdity of the tiny workstations inhabited by Qohen and his co-workers - which involve constant pedaling on a sort of bicycle machine, a large joystick-like device, multiple screens of varying sizes, and a whole host of glowstick-like contraptions that are inserted or exchanged at various occasions for various reasons. (I'm pretty sure clocking in and clocking out are two of the prescribed uses for the glowsticks, but otherwise I'm at a loss.)
Watching Qohen at work in his little cubicle, I was reminded of That Mitchell and Webb Look's great, recurring Numberwang sketch - an absurd game show that featured contestants shouting numbers at random and "winning" based on a completely incoherent (and never-explained) set of rules. I'm not sure if Gilliam and Rushin know exactly how the technology in The Zero Theorem works or not, but it comes across as a hilariously arbitrary collection of commands and behaviors.
Qohen is miserable at the office - but in a bit of good fortune, he gets the chance to finally work from home, as his company assigns him to work on the Zero Theorem project, following in the footsteps of countless predecessors who have tried and failed to crack the code that, theoretically, will prove that life has no meaning. Qohen isn't even sure he wants to solve it - after all, what a depressing thought he'd be trying to prove. Depressive as he is, there's an optimist's heart in him. He's spent the last who-knows-how-many years desperately awaiting a phone call that he believes will solve his problems and give his life purpose. But as he toils away trying to solve his new assignment, he doesn't come any closer to an answer.
Though that long-awaited phone call remains elusive, he does maintain communication with a few people (not always by choice). There's his bumbling boss Joby (David Thewlis), who wants nothing more than to be a cog in this system even as he sees right through its inanity. There's his therapist, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), who's actually a glitchy (and sometimes intrusive) computer program. There's the boy-genius Bob (Lucas Hedges), the teenage computer whiz and son of Management (Matt Damon), the frowning, deadpan, terrifying head of the company and the man who gave Qohen this impossible assignment in the first place.
And finally, there's Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a flighty and attractive woman who corners Qohen at a party, gets to know him, and eventually becomes the woman of his dreams - an attraction he gets to explore in virtual-reality sessions through her pseudo-pornographic website. (This is the film's most curiously outmoded invention. Sexy virtual reality? Was this movie made in the '90s?)
All four (not to mention Management) seem in one way or another to run in conflict with Qohen's desire to live a peaceful and purposeful life. Joby's a blind pragmatist, Bob is a nihilist, Dr. Shrink-Rom is just a collection of pixels and coding, and Bainsley is as much a false projection of Qohen's inner desires as she is a real person, if not more so.
But really, aside from Qohen Leth, those characters feel like set dressing compared to their surroundings, which have more character than anything or anyone else here. The majority of the film is spent at his home, which itself is a magnificent spectacle, an old cathedral repurposed into a techno-gothic cavern, complete with pews situated right across from a complicated computer system, and a mass of blinking neon lights to complement the reds and blues of the faded murals on the walls and the stained glass windows up above. Oh, and white doves keep flying around for good measure, like stubborn holdovers from a bygone era. The crucifix statue that once oversaw a room full of parishioners has had its head replaced with a security camera, one of a number of the film's allusions to the absence of privacy in our modern world.
The computers - namely Qohen's own, where he spends most of his time - are clearly modeled after smartphones, with their bright pink plastic shells, transparent screen protectors and vertical displays. Oh, and just outside these walls (the bustling, chaotic civilization Qohen tries his best to avoid), we see a road full of Smart Cars - serving as both an example of real-world farce and a clever callback to the tiny, one-person cars from Gilliam's own Brazil.
That and many other details are among the things to love in this movie. Waltz is also fantastic in the lead role (which is as dramatic a left turn for him as the role of James Cole was for Bruce Willis in Gilliam's 12 Monkeys). Much of The Zero Theorem works on an individual level. This moment, that idea, this performance, that visual setpiece. But as a collection of pieces it does not make for an especially convincing satire, in large part because it doesn't seem to know what exactly it's satirizing, or how it should be satirizing it.