“The Zero Theorem” sees Terry Gilliam at his surreal and inscrutable best, taking the dehumanising inconveniences of modern living and projecting them forward, through a corkscrew kaleidoscope into a garish, dishevelled dystopia slightly too credible to be dismissed as a nightmare.
In the not-distant-enough future, society is dominated by Orwellian Corporations. Working for one of these corporations is reclusive computer genius Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). Qohen suffers from a crippling collection of phobias and neuroses including agoraphobia, claustrophobia, hypochondria and a deep-rooted and delusional existential dread. When his request to work from home (so that he does not miss a phone call he believes will tell him the meaning of life) is granted, he is assigned by ‘Management’ (Matt Damon, looking eerily like a young Philip Seymour Hoffman) to work on perfecting the zero theorem. But as the intense demands of the work take their toll on Qohen, his solitary existence is disrupted by visits from his boss and ‘friend’ Joby (David Thewlis), Management’s teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and idealistic call girl Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry).
Christoph Waltz delivers a skilful and nuanced performance as the deeply troubled Qohen, all the more impressive given the character’s absence of both hair and eyebrows. The cast find the authentic human relationships in amongst all the futuristic noise and spectacle and there is a genuine sweetness to connection which develops between Qohan, Bainsley and Bob. Mélanie Thierry is an alluring antidote to the typical Hollywood leading lady, providing the film with a quirky sensuality while Lucas Hedges also impresses as the disaffected and detached Bob who finds something of a kindred spirit in Qohen. Peter Stormare, Ben Wishaw and Sanjeev Bhaskar pop up in amusing cameos as Doctors in a corporate medical review panel and Tilda Swinton adds another fancy dress role to her resume as the computer’s psychoanalyst avatar.
Gilliam crams the screen with colour, detail and sly observational comic styling and this is a film that will require and reward multiple viewings just to absorb everything he’s trying to convey. It’s a darkly witty and nihilistic film thematically similar to “Brazil” but lacking its swashbuckling zaniness and light-hearted moments of whimsy. In place of the distaste for the callousness of the bureaucracy is a much sharper critique of the insidious influence of corporations on our lives and the abdication of society’s moral and spiritual institutions.
Gilliam is one of the most distinctive directors working today and his vision and style still feel fresh and relevant. “The Zero Theorem” is certainly one of his quirkiest works for years but it may also be his darkest and most satirical.