“Making sense of the good things in life”
If the end were empty—as was the beginning—wouldn’t life be meaning in itself? Why do we constantly ask the question and seek its answer if so many believe our present existence is merely a stepping-stone towards eternity? If that’s truly the case one could label life as a vicious joke—a test in futility God has set forth to ensure we endure the pain and suffering he promises to extinguish at the opening of his pearly gates. This is why suicide is unforgivable even though it would in fact be our quickest journey to salvation. Therefore, if God were real, he’s simply watching us with a grin. He’s the original voyeur with steel fisted control because we allow it to be so. No, we beg him to let us blindly walk without purpose and without freedom.
This is the paradox of faith and how believing ultimately becomes its own undoing. This is why Management (Matt Damon) yearns for someone to solve The Zero Theorem and prove that zero equals one hundred percent: nothing equaling nothing. It’s pure lunacy—an equation ManCom manager Joby (David Thewlis) went batty trying to work out after hardly any time had past. Why else would he be promoted to a position of oversight? That’s where those who can’t continue to prove they will continually can’t. Now it’s up to the already loony Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), Mancom’s greatest over-achiever. He mindlessly follows orders, diving into the rabbit hole of circuitous folly with the hope the phone call telling him his life’s purpose that was sadly interrupted years before will redial and instill a joy he’s long forgotten.
Written by Pat Rushin, this futuristic dystopia is in perfect alignment with director Terry Gilliam‘s oeuvre. Where the auteur began his escapades into oppression with Big Brother bureaucracy in Brazil and continued it through a sanctimonious future playing God in Twelve Monkeys, The Zero Theorem has him go right to the source itself. Qohen is a man with nothing inside who strives for the something he has been promised. The truth staring him in the eye has been rendered inconsequential against the faith that his wasted life is bringing him closer to meaning. He admits at one point that he partook in excess—food, alcohol, sex—only to now find himself numb to pleasure. He is simultaneously agoraphobic and claustrophobic, praying to remain alone and yet in need of someone to share his solitude with.
Qohen is the opposite of Sam Lowry’s final visage of free will and James Cole’s unwitting antihero because he’s already embraced life’s pointlessness. Whereas those other Gilliam characters fought the inevitable, Leth sees it as his chance for escape. If he does his job perfectly, he will be rewarded. If Management lets him work in the quiet of his own home, he will produce results faster and more efficiently. So he plays his equation box videogame, crunches entities, and waits—a slave to the telephone ringer. He never misses a deadline, never indulges in anything beyond work and sleep, and for all intents and purposes has become a model citizen of the new ordered chaos regime a la The LEGO Movie‘s “Everything is Awesome” upside utopia. Only through the Zero Theorem’s impossibility is his acceptance finally threatened.
Into his life come a woman (Mélanie Thierry‘s Bainsley) and a friend (Lucas Hedges‘ Bob). Meant to distract him from excelling at the new theorem like he had every job before, the prison of frustration any perfectionist would construct when unable to complete a task begins to break his resolve. Rather than dig deeper he finds himself forgetting why he does what he does. Feelings start returning—lust, hunger, and rage. He craves pizza, the possibility of love, and the freedom to fail the system and no longer feel guilt. The distractions stir something inside, reminding him that he has the power to ignore fate and do what he will. If Bob can avoid the Theorem and Bainsley her sex worker life, then he too can become an entity needing crunching rather than the one who crunches.
As a result, the film’s philosophies prove invigorating. I want to watch it all again and then again to sift through the flowery language of conundrums and infinity loops before getting at the heart of the message of individuality opposing the status quo. The technological age of social media and introversion is satirized and our steadily progressing loss of emotional connection exaggerated to comical levels. Each time Qohen leaves the confines of his home we are assaulted by consumer culture and a surplus of information intake that would render the most gregarious of us into a hermit who had enough. The art direction’s junkyard pastiche and anachronistic tech fashions memorable sights, yet I can’t help thinking it felt somewhat hollow. At certain points I saw it as Gilliam parodying himself, going to the well and finding nothing new.
This is the last thing I wanted to believe and yet here I am. For every brilliant flourish like a rousing cover of Radiohead‘s “Creep” courtesy of Karen Souza or Warhol-esque boxes with generic labels stripping away any indication of autonomous branding there’s ultra bright colors polished and gleaming in a way that lacks Brazil‘s authentic existential grime. I don’t want to say The Zero Theorem looks too good, but it does. There’s no easy delineation between reality and the dream world Qohen and Bainsley create since both look just as fabricated as the other. Think The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus‘ cartoonish fantasy interludes without break. Add goofy asides from Tilda Swinton‘s electronic psychiatrist caricature or Peter Stormare, Ben Whishaw, and Sanjeev Bhaskar‘s quirky doctors and it’s all too comical. Dare I say the whole feels forced.
Even so, Gilliam often rises above this artifice. His keen eye for detail still makes him the best suited to bring Rushin’s homage-heavy script to vibrant life; sadly its shortcomings were already exacerbated by a need to jam so much in. While the pace is breakneck so I was scratching my head that a character calling everyone “Bob” because it wasn’t worth the brain cells to remember names instantly becomes a sympathetic, compassionate soul, I almost nodded off more than once regardless. Perhaps it’s the prevalent redundancies or the heavy-handed expository monologues, but the informational overload is overwhelming (probably intentionally so). It’s through no fault of Waltz or Thierry as both rise to the emotive challenge being the sole three-dimensional characters involved provides, but everything else surrounding them came short of the masterpiece potential I know is there.