“What does it mean when everything adds up to nothing?”
This line, delivered with earnest passion by Christoph Waltz in director Terry Gilliam’s latest, The Zero Theorem, serves as both an apt descriptor of the film’s central focus and of the current global mood it strives to capture. The Zero Theorem is Brazil for the Internet Age, and like its spiritual predecessor it invites viewers into a multilayered world without clear answers. From its themes of humanity vs. the inhumanity of modern society to its onslaught of dense and mesmerizing visuals, The Zero Theorem marks a return to form for Gilliam and provides a surreal yet insightful look at the rapidly unfolding technological era in which we live.
The Zero Theorem in a way completes a dystopian trilogy in Gilliam’s portfolio, sitting as a complement to Brazil and 1996’s 12 Monkeys. With all three films, Gilliam swings for the fences in terms of visual spectacle and tackling grand themes. The end result in each is an ambiguous sense of humanity’s ultimate fate. Half the audience is likely to be turned off by the stark conclusions Gilliam reaches, while the other half will nod in silent agreement.
Philosophy aside, The Zero Theorem stands as a remarkably stunning visual experience and packs in solid performances from its skeleton crew of a cast. Christoph Waltz stars (almost exclusively) as Qohen and his intense energy serves as a grounding rod amidst the near overwhelming future landscape. Waltz carries the picture with force and holds his own against the hurricane force of Gilliam’s vision.
The world around Qohen – a brilliant yet troubled computer operator – is grimy, loud and crowded–a futuristic vista just a shade off from the present day with dashes of 20th century cyberpunk visions coating the surface. Waltz channels the fervent energy of a monk as he brings Qohen to life, and injects a spark of genius into the somewhat cliché lone wolf character.
We follow Qohen as he cranks out daily computations for the nebulous “Management”, which is given human form by a chilly and scarily subdued Matt Damon. Qohen’s social circle is small: He’s joined by supervisor Joby, played with jovial energy by David Thewlis, with Mélanie Thierry playing a love interest, passed through an Orwellian prism along with the rest of the relationships. These are children of a doomed society, making by the best they can with the cards dealt.
The cast all turn in manic performances matching the scope of the scenery, giving Gilliam a lot of top fodder to sculpt his story with. In parts, the talent is perhaps underutilized, playing out a host of tropes we’ve all seen before. Gilliam makes several overt winks to the similar territory he’s walking in – most notably The Matrix. The acknowledgement feels unnecessary and a bit distracting, but thankfully Theorem carves out enough new space of its own to soldier past it.
Some humanity still exists in the shadows of the messy corporate world Gilliam places his characters in, with raves in vacant mansions and Qohen’s own dilapidated home, a former church, offering a grubby yet familiar solace from the cacophony of neon adverts and Management oversight. Cyberspace serves as the real set piece of the film, with Qohen’s fate played out in the digital realm, behind glistening monitors. Gilliam shows viewers life, the universe, and everything swirling in the black hole of the online world, every piece of human existence a grain of sand on its endless beach.
As the cocktail comes together, equal parts 1984, Brave New World, and Blade Runner are mixed in to provide something new and unique—a look at the consequences of information overload and digital entanglement with the human spirit. As Qohen’s journey pulses on, there are peaks of pleasure and valleys of frightening nihilism in his technology-drenched future. The picture painted is as dizzying and undetermined as our own time. When reality is hell and virtual reality readily attainable, what’s the imperative to stay put in a broken world?
Terry Gilliam is once again singing our collective doom in The Zero Theorem, but with striking visuals and powerful performances, the tune is an exhilarating one. As he weaves his dystopian vision, the luminance of humanity can’t help but cascade from behind the curtains, real or digital. With humor and bleakness, color and shadow, Gilliam skillfully pushes buttons that remind of our own humanity even as he provides terrifying glimpses of what may be right around the corner in the brave new world that’s sprung up around us.