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Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem' Falls Flat Despite Its Dazzling Visuals
In director Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem—his first sci-fi fantasy since Twelve Monkeys—we get a glimpse into a futuristic world where people are inundated with advertisements and others have soul-crushing jobs. No, it doesn't seem like a too-distant future, but in Gilliam's quest to try to answer philosophical questions about the meaning of life, we seem to be left with more questions in the end.
In this world, the streets are filled with colorful, mile-high billboards aimed directly at people, reminding us of the personal advertising in Minority Report. The film's production design is dazzling, lively and vibrant, but it left us feeling claustrophobic.
The story, written by Pat Rushin (a newcomer in the film world) follows Qohen—which is pronounced Cohen—Leth (Christoph Waltz)—a worker bee at a mysterious corporation named Mancom. He's one of the most diligent employees, who sits at a desk with an oversized computer that repeatedly screens "crunching entities"; it looks like he's trying to solve an advanced Tetris game with a video game controller. Qohen, who's brilliantly portrayed by Waltz, is a bald, neurotic shut-in with social phobias; he peculiarly speaks in "we" instead of "I." His tells his happy-go-lucky boss Joby (David Thewlis) that he dreams to work from home for Mancom, and Joby warns him, "Be careful what you wish for."
The head honcho of the company, who's simply called Management, grants Qohen his wish. (Management is portrayed by a white-haired Matt Damon whose outfits amusingly match with the furniture and curtains in each room he visits.) Qohen is assigned to a new project, dubbed "The Zero Theorem," a seemingly unsolvable mathematical equation that if solved, could explain the meaning of life. At the same time, Qohen has been waiting for a mysterious phone call to tell him the meaning of life, like in Waiting for Godot. He retreats further into his hermit lifestyle in his expansive home (a beautiful former, Gothic-style church), while growing frustrated with trying to solve these block-like games and mathematical equations. It seems that he's resigned to the disturbing Orwellian facts of life; there are Mancom surveillance cameras placed at every corner of his home, but he says it doesn't matter, because there's nothing to hide.
The film gets repetitive as we see Qohen struggle repeatedly with solving the equations; fortunately, there's a strong cast to back up what The Zero Theorem lacks in an enthralling plot. When Qohen goes to a house party hosted by Joby, he meets the alluring Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry). She serves as his love interest and a distraction to his work as they fantasize about making out on a tropical island together through the use of virtual reality body suits. Management's teenage son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), provides guidance and a source of friendship for Qohen as he helps him at his home with the project; Bob, although obnoxious at times, proves to become a likable character. And although Tilda Swinton has a minor role as Qohen's online virtual therapist, Dr Shrink-Rom, she plays the part deftly with the same intensity and humor she brought to her recent role in Snowpiercer.
What Gilliam brings to The Zero Theorem is a visually stunning world that attempts to tap into questions about a dystopian future and the meaning of life. However, the film doesn't give us as much insight as we had hoped it would considering it isn't treading new territory. Although we do ultimately get a glimpse of Qohen's humanity, what we're stuck with is watching Qohen's monotonous life. And it makes us wish that this film had the same impact as his classic, Brazil.
"The Zero Theorem" is open in theaters now