I’m going to be honest, I’ve watched Terry Gilliam’s new movie The Zero Theorem three times now and I still have no idea what to make of it. It’s brilliant, that much is for sure, it just takes multiple viewings to unravel the many layers of the world that he has constructed.
Not since his 80s masterpiece Brazil has Gilliam constructed such a strange and surreal world. The story, such as it is, follows Qohen (Christoph Waltz), a neurotic man who chooses isolation in search of meaning. You see, he’s waiting for a phone call. In order to make sure he receives it he asks his all-powerful and all-seeing bosses at Mancom to work from home. Reluctant at first, the management (Matt Damon in a small but mesmerizing role) offers him the chance to work on a secret project, The Zero Theorem.
The theorem is simple enough, everything is nothing. What starts out as a basic equation: 0=100, currently 0=93.7521%, make 0=100, ends up leading to very heart of existence. But nothing is ever so simple in the land of Gilliam and his search for answer slowly drives the (already quite mad) Qohen insane.
The truth is Gilliam could have easily made two movies out of this film. One, which focuses on the search for the theorem and another that dives deeper into the world he created. By placing the audience in such a disorienting world, one where they never quite get settled, then tearing it apart is disorienting.
The world Gilliam has built is the closest thing to cyber-punk to hit screens in a long time and, while the execution may be a bit muddled, its construction is a masterpiece. In order to pull something like this off Gilliam must have spent years defining the culture, dress, art and technology. This, it seems, is the post-future. It’s mentioned off-hand near the beginning but Gilliam seems to have placed the audience a world where the romance of technology is long-gone and all that remains is a neon-lit dystopia.
Though it is bound to confuse casual viewers die-hard fans of Gilliam’s work will love The Zero Theorem. While the director has never played by the rules he’s always at his best in truly weird worlds like Brazil or 12 Monkeys.
The Zero Theorem is currently in a limited release and can be found on VOD.