‘The Zero Theorem’ Review: Terry Gilliam’s Latest Is All That It Isn’t

By  · Published on September 19th, 2014


Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 30, 2013 as part of our Fantastic Fest 2013 coverage.

A bald man, one without hair seemingly anywhere on his body, calmly sits naked in front of his computer screen as he watches what appears to be either a simulation or video of the awesome action of an outer space black hole. It sucks in all of the space circling around it like an endlessly flushing toilet bowl of stars, matter, and time. Our hairless hero is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). Qohen is neither the cunning villainous type nor the quick-witted heroic type, and his emotional characteristics are as bald as his head. We’re exposed to only a handful of states out of Qohen as we follow with him in his daily routine through a comically crazy and colorful future where he seems as physically discomforted by the assaults of this world as a prisoner released from Shawshank prison after fifty years. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry to do something; or probably nothing as I understand it.

Welcome to Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem.

Despite Qohen’s apparent physical displacement he functions otherwise as if he was made to exist here and only here. He’s a workhorse programmer for an Orwellian corporate entity known as “Management.” Qohen attempts to convince Management that his production could increase by double if he was able to do his work from home. Though, his motive in doing so is not to please his employer, but to no longer be forced away from his phone and risk missing what we can only gather to be the most important phone call anyone has ever received. We can’t tell if he’s expecting a call he’s supposed to get, or get a call for something extremely important that may never happen. For some reason in this future caller ID has gone away and instead we get things like singing pizza boxes.

Management complies with the request (with supervision of his output, of course) and has Qohen work tirelessly on the proving of a mathematical equation to make zero equal one-hundred percent. It’s an attempt to prove that all things equate to nothing.

The theorem to prove all is nothing is the propellant. Its existence gives meaning to Qohen who would almost otherwise have no meaning short of waiting on one specific phone call from someone about something. It’s a staggering irony that the only meaning in the movie is the meaning found in the attempt to find that there’s no meaning to anything. I don’t know if that’s brilliant or infuriating, but I know it doesn’t make me feel good. The film understands this about itself, and it offers Qohen and the audience a form of socialization and human interconnection through the acts of Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges). Bainsley is a prostitute of sorts, and Bob is Management’s brilliant teenage son. Bob’s investment in Qohen appear as strictly forceful intervention by Management to ensure he’s working, while Bainsley’s motivation to connect with Qohen are in a gray area between romantic and something else.

This whole world created by Gilliam and writer Pat Rushin is difficult to wrap one’s head around, to say the least. Everything from the programming and discovery of advanced mathematics by way of swooping, swerving, and fidgety video game controls (like Tetris via a flight simulator) to liquidized computer software. Even therapy is done via pre-programmed computer software. Tilda Swinton as the Shrink-Rom is a standout with little screen time giving what appears to be her heartfelt and friendly investment in Qohen. In fact, she along with Bainsley offer Qohen the most effective emotional interactions and both are done through the computer. I’m sure that means something.

If this were a film by a newer filmmaker I would have said this was an attempt to make a Terry Gilliam movie and failing. Since it’s actually Gilliam who made this I’m inclined to say that it may require more than one viewing. Thematically, this shares much with Gilliam’s Brazil in its depiction of a satirized corporate future, but there seemed to be more to Brazil that wasn’t just ideas. It was entertaining while this film left me detached. Both films left me with a feeling that I should watch a second time, but only Theorem makes me think it’s so I can maybe enjoy it by understanding more. Brazil I enjoyed anyway.

The Upside: Gilliam revisits his strengths; set designs are spectacular and the humor and heart are there; good performances from the cast of veterans and newbies with Waltz, Thewlis and Swinton.

The Downside: Left me cold; not nearly as thought-provoking as intended.

On the Side: Billy Bob Thornton was originally attached for the lead role, but he eventually refused due to the filming having to take place in London and him having a phobia of antiques. Strange to think that an actor turned down a role for a film taking place in a dystopian future because he has a fear of things from the past.