MOVIE REVIEW: The Zero Theorem




I'm no expert, but I feel that I've watched enough films in my day to make sense of most anything and anyone.  Not too much flies over my head.  In that regard, Terry Gilliam is one of those filmmakers that challenges even the most ardent and astute students, observers, and curators of this artistic medium.  In one viewpoint, we see him at the core of the Monty Python comedy troupe and J.K. Rowling's first choice to helm her "Harry Potter" franchise for the silver screen.  In another, he's the wildly daring auteur of "Brazil," "Time Bandits," "12 Monkeys," and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."  

For me, Gilliam is one of those directors that is the living and working cinematic embodiment that the gap between the erudite and incomprehensible can be razor thin at times.  Put him on a list with David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Terrance Malick, and Tim Burton.  Their creative genius and talent is unquestioned, but their films are polarizing and incredibly perplexing to the point of being uncomfortable.  Surreal doesn't begin to describe these guys.

Gilliam is proving the incomprehensible side of his craft with his latest film, "The Zero Theorem."  On paper, this film is meant to join "Brazil" and "12 Monkeys" as his "Orwellian Triptych," as he calls it, with each film being a starkly different take of a dystopian future and matters of personal responsibility.  I'll grant its place there, as the film is as maddeningly unique and detailed as those previous two works, which some call masterpieces (not me).  However, at the same time, "The Zero Theorem" goes very few places to cover and speak to very few things out of all of its manic effort.  Sorry, but this one was over my head.

Two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, an introverted and sensitive phobic computer programmer for a Big Brother-like organization called MANCOM.  He dwells in a defunct and decaying old church in a future version of what appears to be England.  It is a place of ugly beauty where the low-tech squalor of the past meets the high-tech gloss of the present.  Streaming billboards line streets darkened by dingy pollution.  There is a crude, wired technology that had been merged with a tablet/device-centered culture.  Naturally, control and symbolism is everywhere.

Qohen's job is to "crunch entities" and it has consumed him.  He works extended hours and the stress has caused his hair to fall out.  His work doctors have assigned him an unhelpful virtual psychiatrist (Tilda Swinton, who fits right in all this weirdness).   Qohen is increasingly against interacting with other people.  This includes his immediate supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), who thinks Qohen is a good time with a girl, maybe even the sultry Bainsley (Melanie Thierry of "Babylon A.D."), from not being such a square.   Overseeing this entire operation via constant surveillance is "Management," embodied by Matt Damon (in his second go-around with Gilliam after "The Brothers Grimm" from 2005).  

What's really going on behind all of those numbers and figures is that Qohen has reached an existential crisis point and anguish and disillusionment.  He longs for meaning to it all.  He waits for a phone call that will never come.  When Qohen gets a face-to-face meeting with Management, he requests to work from home and receives a new and more challenging project.  Qohen is tasked to work on the "Zero Theorem," a Minecraft-looking puzzle of formulas for the value of zero.  This new project only makes his reclusive nature worse and fractures his psyche even more.  Along the way, Qohen continues to challenge himself to find meaning to different things, whether it's the role of Management, the attraction he feels towards Bainsley, or the theorem itself.

All of this plot in "The Zero Theorem" operates in the wholly imaginative and tremendously trippy world that we expect from Terry Gilliam, which is just as it should be, in a way.  I wasn't expecting anything less than his previous surreal creations.  It's got that quirk going for it, but it's not used efficiently, outside of the fact that the film kept its dreary magic carpet ride at under two hours.    

As I said before, for all of this thick and heady detail, the film poses more questions than it answers.  It makes more itches than it scratches.  Rather than going somewhere interesting, the film wastes an awful amount of time on sideshow minutiae.  By the time Tilda Swinton pulled off a wig and broke out into a rap routine, I was done.  I was in WTF land.  Qohen could figure out whatever he wanted the rest of the film and it wouldn't have changed my investment, or lack thereof, in "The Zero Theorem."  

Now, I'm smart enough to know the filmmakers and actors meant to tell and tackle more.  This is a busy and dedicated performance from Christoph Waltz.  I could see more coming, but the film never took big enough leaps to press those buttons.  I suspect there are deeper messages in "The Zero Theorem" fighting to get through that speak to workplace stress, societal obsession with conformity, data-driven emptiness, love and faith, and that grand old mystery of the "meaning of life."  Good luck extracting any earth-shattering revelation for any of those.

The last time one of these erudite and incomprehensible filmmakers tried this whole routine and failed was Terrance Malick's "The Tree of Life" from 2011.  My dedicated followers know what I think about that awful film that every highbrow critic seemed to love.  I'm sorry, but nearly three hours of screensaver nature shots, a misplaced extended flashback of the planet's creation, and random and empty voiceover dialogue all channeled through the crappy upbringing of a kid with a hard father in Texas doesn't do a damn thing towards the "meaning of life."  Nice try, but no.

"The Zero Theorem" is thankfully shorter, but no better.   I'm sorry, again, but a naked bald man dreaming of a perfect beach after failing through a black hole he's been seeing all movie in reoccurring images during a narrative of spurts, starts, and tail-chasing circles with no direction isn't going to discover the "meaning of life" either.  Nice try, but you get a no too.

LESSON #1: LIFE INEVITABLY LEADS TO DEATH-- Well, duh.  Thanks computer geniuses and math equations.  Didn't see that one coming.  Fire up the newspaper presses and let's play some funeral music.

LESSON #2: ALL A STRESSED-OUT COMPUTER PROGRAMMER NEEDS TO FEEL BETTER IS A HOT CHICK THAT SHOWS HIM SOME SKIN AND ATTENTION-- Wait.  Is this an AOL IM chat room bot or a real girl?  There is a hack love story at the center of this film that feels about as dumb and forced as Manti Te'o's love life.

LESSON #3: FINDING SOMETHINGNESS IN NOTHINGNESS-- ...well something like that.  Haven't you learned anything?  When you dig a hole in the ground, you didn't create emptiness.  You just moved the dirt to a different place,  There's always something and not nothing.  Jeez.  Hold on.  Is that the meaning of life?  Cue the Dramatic Chipmunk.