Director Terry Gilliam brings us another visual feast set in the future and thankfully goes back to his roots.
Featuring a multitude of great actors, The Zero Theorem has the fantastic Christoph Waltz at its centre as eccentric recluse Qohen Leth. Leth is a number cruncher, or more accurately an entity cruncher, and works for the elusive ‘Management’ (Matt Damon). However, he is unsatisfied having to go to and from his home to work and would rather work from his house and wait for the call he has been expecting. So he talks to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), requesting a medical as he claims he is dying. The doctors state that there is nothing wrong with him and instead prescribe an online therapist (Tilda Swinton). At a party thrown by Joby, which Qohen reluctantly attends as Management will be there, he meets the beautiful Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) who is far more interested in him than he is in her. Qohen successfully talks to Management and his wish is granted, he will work on the Zero Theorem from home, discovering the purpose of existence. So with the help of Management’s teenage son Bob (Lucas Hedges) and the distraction of call girl Bainsley, Qohen’s life turns completely around as he goes on a journey of self-discovery.
The world that Gilliam presents to us is a neon and animal print, advert filled, futuristic delight juxtaposed with the ancient and anachronistic church that Qohen lives in. The visual style is reminiscent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997), the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Gilliam’s own Brazil (1985), choosing a retro style future rather than a smooth CGI affair, which in my opinion would be far less believable. It is a future with recognisable elements and the office work hierarchy is one we are all familiar with.
Qohen is a delightful character, speaking in the royal pronoun (we instead of I) and clearly set in his ways, he is a solitary figure who is suddenly forced to interact with others. He waits patiently for the call that will one day come and answer his questions of existence, but until then he has the challenge of the Zero Theorem to deal with. Visually like a mathematical Tetris computer game, the challenge consumes him and takes him on a journey he never would have expected.
Waltz finally has the leading role he deserves and he does not disappoint, making Qohen a quirky and immediately likeable character that has an endearing naivety but also an inner strength to him. Thewlis is excellent as the irritating supervisor who just cannot get Qohen’s name right, calling him Quinn, there’s always one, and Matt Damon’s small role as Management is inspired. Mélanie Thierry is also great as the sexy call girl with a heart who is sent by Management but ends up falling for Qohen. Swinton is barely recognisable as Dr. Shrink-Rom and Lucas Hedges is great as the intellectual teenager who coaxes Qohen out of his proverbial shell.
The Zero Theorem is reminiscent of a lot of films but the combination of characters, story and aesthetic work so well that it really doesn’t matter. There is even the inclusion of virtual reality suits much like the ones in Holy Motors (2012).Things do feel dated, with Big Brother type video cameras in black and white, but this retro future is a lot more interesting than some of the futuristic futures that have been depicted in recent films. If the 90s are back in fashion, then why can’t they be back in film?
As with previous Gilliam films, the story is presented in a dense manner with plenty of attention to detail, a nice amount of humour and a little of the surreal. Waltz really is sublime and could carry the film all on his own but luckily doesn’t have to. The Zero Theorem is a fantastical and distinct film with an abundance of great characters and a multifaceted narrative with fantastic visuals depicting a world I would love to return to again and again.
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Pat Rushin
Stars: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis
Runtime: 107 mins
Country: UK, Romania