Visually, The Zero Theorem has to be one of the most interesting films of 2014. Where most filmmakers fill their dystopian visions with dull metallic colors and dirt, Terry Gilliam fills his with bright, candy-colored props and sets. Does this make the future that the characters of the movie seem somehow less depressing? The answer is no, it actually makes their plight even more of a bummer.
The Zero Theorem has also provided viewers with some of the best performances from some of the finest actors and actresses this year, too. Christoph Waltz is barely recognizable as the film’s protagonist. His shaved hair and shaved eyebrows make him look more like John Malkovich as Nosferatu than the well-groomed but grizzly bounty hunter in Django Unchained. But one thing his character, Qohen Leth, has in common with Dr. King Schulz–his humanity. Both performances manage to elicit a sympathy from audience members that’s refreshing in the cynical age in which we live.
The other performances are also perfect, even though the actors and actresses (with the exception of Matt Damon) aren’t nearly as well-known as Christoph Waltz. David Thewlis manages to channel The Office‘s David Brent without being nearly as smarmy. At first he seems like some Kafkaesque bureaucrat, but even he becomes someone the audience cares about eventually.
But the real gem among the supporting actors here is Melanie Thierry, who plays Bainsley, Qohen’s love interest. Thierry is a French actress with a long list of credits, and her performance in The Zero Theorem makes one want to seek out and watch all of her films. Not only is she a great beauty, but she portrays one of the most sympathetic women characters I’ve seen on film in years.
Qohen Leth works in a cubicle where he processes data, or, as the movie calls it, he “crunches entities”. The company he works for is called Mancom, and “Management” in the company is played by Matt Damon. Apparently, Management is actually his character’s name, too. Kafkaesque, indeed.
Qohen is clearly a little unbalanced. He claims to have received a phone call from God at some point in the past, but before God could tell him what his life meant, he accidentally dropped the phone. Now, whenever the phone rings, Qohen almost has a heart attack from the excitement. He’s also always disappointed by whomever is calling, because it’s never God.
Also, in order to try to relate to other people better, Qohen always refers to himself as “we” or “us”. I’m not sure it works well.
Management tasks Qohen with proving something call “The Zero Theorem”, which basically states that life is meaningless, or all is nothing, or something like that. I’ll admit that the idea was a little over my head. But I got the point. At its heart, this movie is about a man’s existential dilemma.
Qohen has apparently spent years avoiding relationships as he waits for his phone call. But during the course of The Zero Theorem, he becomes involved in the lives of several characters: his supervisor, Management’s son, and a virtual sex worker. These relationships rarely play out as you might expect, either. Qohen seems to have a strange sort of rapport with his supervisor, who seems very fond of Qohen, even though he pretends to have mis-remembered his name at every opportunity. Management’s son seems like he might be an opponent of Qohen’s in some way, but they form a strange friendship, too. And of course, Bainsley, the virtual sex worker in the film, becomes Qohen’s love interest.
Unfortunately, even with such great performances and great visuals, something about the film doesn’t come together. I gave up hating movies I didn’t completely understand years ago, but most audiences will be frustrated by the cerebral nature of the themes. The ending, in particular, will frustrate most people. I didn’t mind the stuff I didn’t understand, but I’m not like most audiences. I’m willing to go along for the eye candy and the performances even if the plot makes little sense.
This isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a good movie. A really good movie. But it’s unlike almost anything else you’ll see in the theater this year. Presumably you’re sympathetic to a film like this, since you’re reading this review on a blog that’s devoted to weird movies.
It’s not one of Terry Gilliam’s best movies, but it’s well worth a look nonetheless.
You might also enjoy reading about Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or this page about hard to understand movies set in the future.
by Randy Ray
Here’s the movie trailer and an interesting review of the film on YouTube, too: