The film is bursting with hyper-realistic color schemes that make every scene look as if it is taking place in the fever dream of a bedridden circus clown.
Does existence have meaning? That’s the central question in director Terry Gilliam’s new film The Zero Theorem, a film whose emotional depth fails to match the beautiful artistry of its production design and visual effects. Gilliam, known for a unique style of filmmaking that typically defies genre, has produced a bubblegum-colored confection that is a treat for the eye, but without much long-lasting substance.
Our ferryman on this journey is Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) (that’s Q-no U-O-H-E-N), an Entities Cruncher at the massive corporation Mancom, which seems to run the not-too-distant future in which the film takes place. Qohen, speaking of himself only in the plural, constantly asserts, “We are dying,” a refrain he both believes and hopes to use as an excuse to work from home instead of pointlessly dragging himself every day to a place where he works independently, surrounded by dozens of other people also working independently on projects that never interact.
The reason Qohen is so determined to spend as much time at home as possible is because he is waiting for a call. From whom he does not know, but he is sure that when the call comes, it will provide him—at last!—with his purpose in life, a feeling that has been absent for as long as he can remember. Seeing in Qohen a unique opportunity, Management (Matt Damon) assigns him to a notoriously difficult project (meaning one capable of driving men insane) called the Zero Theorem. Finally able to work uninterrupted, Qohen retreats to the safety of his home and begins trying to solve a puzzle, to answer to which may reveal whether the universe and existence have any meaning.
The Zero Theorem was written by Pat Rushin and is an impressive work from a first time screenwriter. Rushin’s script contains a plethora of philosophical ideas and questions that have plagued humans for centuries. As an intelligent screenwriter, Rushin chooses not to answer these questions and instead leaves the film open to interpretation. While the broad strokes of Rushin’s story are intriguing, the film’s central story gets muddled in the many other ideas that are haphazardly stapled on, almost as an afterthought. Gilliam may be more at fault than Rushin in this respect. Many of Gilliam’s films have very overt political/philosophical elements, so it’s easy to imagine the director throwing in a few extra social critiques (consumerism, capitalism, loneliness in a digitally connected world) on top of Rushin’s original script. As a result, the message of the movie becomes diluted to an almost-flavorless syrup.
Where The Zero Theorem excels, unsurprisingly, is in the fantastical world that Gilliam envisions as the near future of humanity. In stark contrast to several of Gilliam’s films with more muted palettes (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys), The Zero Theorem is bursting with hyper-realistic color schemes that make every scene look as if it is taking place in the fever dream of a bedridden circus clown. Costumed in drab colors, Qohen stands out from the colorful madness that surrounds and accosts him each day. A quintessentially Gilliam-esque film, The Zero Theorem is a unique cinematic experience.
Waltz delivers a very good performance as Qohen. His talents aren’t tested too much, but Gilliam definitely gives him room to express a less restrained, more animated side of which we have only seen glimpses in past work. Waltz’s most interesting scenes involve Bob (Lucas Hedges), the wunderkind son of Management who aids Qohen in his quest for the Zero Theorem. Hedges has a natural charm on screen, and gives an over-the-top performance that balances Waltz’ subdued approach. The two deserved many more scenes together.
The Zero Theorem is a very entertaining film to watch, but don’t look for much in the way of depth. While it touches on many important questions, it fails to have a satisfying impact. | Matthew Newlin
The Zero Theorem shows at the Webster Film Series at 7:30 p.m. September 20 & 21. For more information, visit webster.edu/filmseries or call 314-968-7487.