By Kyle G. King. “Zero must equal one hundred percent. Good luck.” What a remarkably villainous equation for a robot to assign to a human being. Make everything out of nothing, I dare you. “Good luck” is a taunt on the innate curiosity of human nature itself.
Such divine questions and infuriating non-answers are the subject (and tagline) of Terry Gillam’s latest sci-fi feature The Zero Theorem. It stars the sensational Christoph Waltz, alongside the likes of Melanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, and a flamboyantly dressed Matt Damon.
Gilliam throws us yet again into the hyper-vibrant dystopia of a not so distant future (see his 1985 sci-fi break-out Brazil, obviously). Qohen Leth (Waltz), prefers the pronouns we/us/our to “better relate to society”, is a hairless entity cruncher at the futuristic corporation Mancom, whose day to day operations are intentionally as perplexing and undefined as they are ridiculous and monotonous.
The very first scene of the movie is with Qohen, sitting naked at a vast digital display of a vacuous black hole in the decrepit abandoned church he calls his home. (An adept, beautiful, and intimate way to introduce the movie and the character.) When his phone rings, Qohen quickly answers it and breaks from his cosmic captivation. He is a man riddled with fear and anxiety, dread and displeasure about every single thing surrounding him. This is truly evident when he steps foot out of his quiet monkish retreat and into the cacophony of the public microscope. Costume, sound, and production design have always been huge parts of lavish theater for Gilliam films, and these departments work well to put Qohen in an even smaller box of discomfort. Terry Gilliam relishes the opportunity to present the audience with the sprawling tour of an overstimulating cityscape. With great juxtaposition, Qohen wears all black in a sea of variegation.
Two things Mancom certainly does that are not perplexing or undefined are to oppress and manipulate Qohen to the point of near insanity. Everyone else around him is at work and beaming with energy, but he cringes at the very touch of his co-worker’s comforting reassurance. Joby (David Thewlis) is the direct superior who can’t seem to recall Qohen’s name correctly, even though he claims to consider them friends. He invites Qohen out to a party at his place, which Qohen only agrees to after much pressure and persuasion. Qohen again, is the sore thumb of darkness to a scene of party goers who are more neon clothes and iPad screens than actual human beings. As he irks around the house, his style catches the eye of Bainsley (Melanie Thierry). She is curly-blonde, dressed brightly, and talks about her father a lot. (Clearly the anthesis of Qohen.) But it has been so long since anybody has shown interest in him, Qohen can’t help but get addicted to her sinking ship.
Qohen begs Mancom for the opportunity to work from home. Nervous is he to miss “the call,” which is what he knows will answer all his questions: “our meaning of life, our personal calling, and a reason for being.” After trials, testing, and tribulations, he gets his wish but with a few catches. He is assigned digital shrink sessions with the staff psychiatrist Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), both of whom struggle to understand what, if anything, they can do for each other. And he is assigned a new, grander set of entities to crunch and equations to solve: the zero theorem, “a guaranteed burnout project.”
That guaranteed burnout project on which nobody seems to last is essentially a video game of chasing bricks. Qohen needs to harness certain bricks and attempt to fit them into some sort of 3-dimensional puzzle. It’s all very silly or satirical, but Qohen is undoubtedly quite awful at it. Enter the boss’ son Bob (Lucas Hedges). Bob goes by Bob and calls everyone Bob because he feels that remembering names waste precious brain space. Bob is cool where Qohen is awkward. Bob is talented where Qohen is clumsy. Bob has all his answers where Qohen has only questions. Lucas Hedges holds his own in every scene with the veteran Waltz, and there are many. Bob is assigned to help Qohen solve the zero theorem, even though he thinks it’s pointless to prove nothing is everything.
Bainsley emerges at Qohen’s home and claims to want to help him as well, but really only offers distractions. She gives him a suit for Qohen to quite literally enter the internet and visit her website. This provides Qohen a moldable fantasy world without fear or anxiety. (“Can I die here?” is his initial concern.) This is a drug for him. He is invincible here. Rather than chasing bricks and working without purpose, he can spend countless hours in paradise with the hair of a Ken doll and the woman he desires. But the bureaucratic ideals in him are too deep-rooted; he has work he must finish. Even now, he can’t let himself get what he wants, even it means further mental breakdowns and anxiety attacks.
Qohen is pulled violently back and forth between work, love, questions, and answers until a final confrontation with Management (Matt Damon), who appears to him balefully in his own home. Qohen’s faith in an all knowing phone call and willingness to work without purpose makes him the ideal employee in a culture of exploitation. The neon colors and bright lights are only a distraction to the greedy corrupt nature of the intrinsic capitalism embedded in this doomed superficial society. Think Orwell’s 1984 at a dayglo convention.
The Zero Theorem deals with grand themes of corporate enterprise, existentialism, and what the hell it is exactly that the internet’s probably doing to all of us. A lot of its hammy comedy might throw you, but it’s almost as if Terry Gilliam has set out to make a Brazil for the next generation. While the execution towards it finishes slightly empty, the characters and the themes are rich and entertaining and Christoph Waltz should be enough to keep anyone happy.