Terry Gilliam’s films always feel like a labour of love. This might be because the production of them is typically so arduous that it becomes the stuff of film history (as seen in the documentary Lost In La Mancha). It’s easy to see the struggle of his characters, often raging against an unfair and incomprehensible authority, as his own.
Although the central conflict at the heart of The Zero Theorem is similar to many of his films, it generally feels a lot more mellow and that isn’t necessarily a good thing. There’s something missing here. It feels as though Gilliam is going over old ground without ever really digging under the surface.
Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth, a brilliant but neurotic computer programmer who longs to be allowed to work from home so he can wait for a mysterious phone call that will give his life meaning. Management (Matt Damon) agrees and assigns him to work on the Zero Theorem, which is intended to prove that everything in the universe is ultimately meaningless. As Qohen struggles with this impossible task, seductive neighbour Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and precocious young genius Bob (Lucas Hedges) arrive to either help or hinder him.
There are certainly things to like about The Zero Theorem, especially in the first half hour. Waltz is always a compelling presence and his performance is mannered without losing sight of the human being underneath the quirks. He gets a hell of an entrance, too: staring into a black hole while sitting nude at his desk in the abandoned church he calls home. It’s a striking bit of symbolism, but the film’s script lacks the complexity to go with such impressive imagery.
Once we’ve established Qohen’s issues (refers to himself in the plural, doesn’t like to be touched, can’t remember what joy feels like) the script never really tries to go any deeper or to more complex places. Gilliam decorates the film with plenty of fascinating baubles to keep our attention, but as the film progress there’s a disappointing sense of hollowness to the proceedings. The Zero Theorem’s message is admirable, but it’s one that has been made many times before, and with more energy by several other directors, including Gilliam himself.
Still, there are plenty of the usual quirks and visual treats that you’d expect from the director. Damon’s entrance is hilarious, the costumes are outrageous (Waltz’ virtual reality suit is something quite special), the near-future London is brimming with very funny little details, and the ensemble cast is hugely impressive. Waltz and Damon (who only appears briefly) aside, there are cameos from Ben Whishaw, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Peter Stormare as fueding company doctors, David Thewlis has fun with his mateless jobsworth Joby and Tilda Swinton is hysterical as a rabbit-toothed Scottish psychiatric program.
When the film moves into its second half, the focus narrows to Qohen and his relationships with Bob and Bainsley, both of whom show him what he’s been missing by shutting himself away from life. Thierry and Hedges both put in good performances but their characters, particularly Thierry’s are too firmly rooted in archetype to be particularly interesting. There’s a bittersweetness which works well but Gilliam seems to be content to let the film coast along until it stops.
The Zero Theorem makes for an enjoyable watch and there are some interesting ideas fizzing around. The performances are strong, it’s occasionally funny and occasionally moving. Finally, however, it’s all too familiar.