‘The Zero Theorem’ Review
Terry Gilliam returns with his follow-up to 2009′s ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ with the equally divisive ‘The Zero Theorem.’ Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a computer and math whiz who is tasked by his enigmatic boss (Matt Damon, doing his best Karl Lagerfeld impression) to solve the impossible zero theorem — a nihilistic mathematical equation that would effectively prove that the world means nothing. Along the way, Qohen finds plenty of meaning, though Gilliam practically bludgeons his audience to get there.
The problem with ambitious and visionary writers and directors like Gilliam is that they often disappear so far down their own rabbit holes that they make it impossible for an audience to connect. Compared to similarly ambitious recent films like Ari Folman’s ‘The Congress’ and Michel Gondry’s ‘Mood Indigo,’ ‘The Zero Theorem’ feels cold. Subjectivity is imperative — it’s how we, the audience, connect with a film and perceive its themes. What the director sees in the film isn’t always what we see, but the place where our understanding and their presentation overlap can be such a wondrous thing.
Not so with ‘The Zero Theorem.’ The themes are heavy-handed and literal when they should be more abstract, and Gilliam goes too abstract when a more simplistic presentation would work wonders. Like the immersive virtual world into which Qohen escapes with his new lady friend, Gilliam lapses into ocular overload — where someone like Gondry or Folman are able to wrangle their many visual ideas into a coherent and whimsical whole, Gilliam’s display is more of a regressive — and aggressive — collage; if your eyes had taste buds, ‘The Zero Theorem’ would leave a bad aftertaste in them.
The first two acts redundantly hammer us with the film’s purpose: to tell a story about a world that is, not unlike our own, so disconnected by their connection to technology. People are constantly tapped into multiple tech devices all at once, and they live in a garish, noisy, technicolor version of our not-so-distant future, where digital ads follow you down the street and sounds and sights are equally distressing in their obnoxiousness.
Amid all of this technology, no one really interacts with anyone in a genuine or meaningful way, and Qohen is the perfect contrast: a guy who is a genius with technology, but sees no fun in any of it. He lives in an old, crumbling cathedral where he eats bland food and refers to himself as “we” and “us,” and he absurdly waits for a return phone call that he believes will give his life meaning. But as chance would have it (or so he thinks), he meets a girl who is everything he is not: extroverted, sexy, and adventurous.
And something funny happens: as he spends time with his new lady love and his manager’s son, working tirelessly to solve a theorem that proves the world means nothing, he starts to find meaning in his own wasted life — a sense of optimism and renewed purpose.
The film is often redundant and filled with dialogue that spends too much time working as thematic exposition instead of allowing the characters to behave more naturally or for the visuals to do any of the heavy-lifting. That said, Waltz and Melanie Thierry give outstanding performances and try to find the humanity in these cartoonish characters. Watching Waltz interact with everyone from Thierry to Tilda Swinton’s wacky computer therapist character and Matt Damon’s mysterious manager is a delight, and he works beautifully, feeding and reflecting off of the energy of those around him.
Unfortunately, the third act sticks the final nail in the coffin — Gilliam’s story becomes so specific to his own subjectivity that it leaves little room for the audience to connect or appreciate what he’s doing. It’s not that the ending feels obtuse, it’s that Gilliam wants you to feel that way. In his effort to hide an emotionally resonant story within a convoluted one, Gilliam feels as though he’s trying way too hard to make things unnecessarily complicated for the sake of being clever. For a film about connections, Gilliam makes it too hard for his audience to connect.