The Zero Theorem

Posted: March 19, 2014 in Film reviews
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Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Thierry.

Qohen Leth is a highly intelligent computer programmer working for a large corporation in some indeterminate future. He’s not a happy man, he hates his job, hates noise and the hustle and bustle of future London, and he hates any kind of physical contact with people, he also constantly refers to himself as ‘we’. He desperately wants to work from home because he’s terrified that he’s going to miss an important phone call, a call he’s been waiting years for.

His wishes seem to be answered when the mysterious Management offer him a role working on a special project that will allow him to work from home. The project involves trying to solve the mysterious Zero Theorem, an incredibly complex mathematical equation that’s already burned out numerous other employees. Qohen readily agrees to take on the job, but despite thinking this will make his life simpler, and limit his contact with people, he finds his life becoming more complicated and against his better judgement he finds himself connecting with a young genius named Bob, and a prostitute named Bainsley, but can he solve the Zero Theorem, and does he even want to?

They say you should shoot for the moon because if you miss you’ll be amongst the stars. Unfortunately sometimes you miss and end up in a dull, laborious orbit around the moon instead. The Zero Theorem isn’t quite this bad, and even though it does settle into a monotonous orbit you can tell it’s constantly yearning to break free and head back towards those stars, and at times it almost makes it before being dragged back again.

And it’s a shame because there is an awful lot to like about this film. It’s visually stunning, which is even more impressive given the miniscule budget, and it’s filled with great performances, chief amongst them Christoph Waltz, who’s exceptional in every scene he’s in (and he’s pretty much in every scene in the film). It’s funny and touching and it has an awful lot to say; about how disconnected people can feel, even in a society where we are ever more connected.

The film is about faith as well, and the central conceit of the Zero Theorem is effectively an equation for proving that God doesn’t exit, that life is pointless. As Matt Damon’s Management says, if you’ve spent your whole life waiting to discern its meaning, does this mean you’ve spent a meaningless life?

The film touches on corporate hierarchies and the early scene where Qohen meets with a surreal panel of doctors to discuss being signed off work sick could be seen as being analogous with what various welfare claimants now have to go through. It’s also about internet pornography, and the fact that the only way Qohen feels comfortable having an intimate relationship with Mélanie Thierry’s Bainsley is via virtual reality speaks volumes again about the disconnection between the real and digital worlds.

The film has been described by some as dystopian, but I prefer Gilliam’s own description of it as a utopian future. People might not be overly happy, but that could be argued of the present day, and aside from the regimented nature of the corporation Qohen works for there’s no evidence that this is some kind of jackbooted fascist state as in Brazil.

Mention has also been made about the role of women in the film. The only two female characters of note being Bainsley, the sex object (though Thierry’s nuanced performance means she’s far more three dimensional than some would have you believe) and Tilda Swinton (who’s clearly having a ball) as a virtual psychiatrist. Whilst I see the point people are making, it isn’t like the male characters come off any better. You could argue that Qohen and David Thewlis’ Joby are as much whores as Bainsley.

However visually stunning the film is though, however mesmerising Waltz’s central performance, and however intelligent the story is, there’s a limit to how interesting you can make watching a man sitting in a chair playing with what looks like an X-Box controller, and too often this is what we’re left with, which means after an interesting opening the film drags in the middle. Qohen’s home inside an old church looks fantastic, but quickly the setting becomes quite mundane. This is a film that could have done with more scenes outside (though I know budget would have been an issue, and I appreciate that setting so much of the story within Qohen’s home is an analogy for how he’s a prisoner of his own psychoses).

The film perks up towards the end, but sadly by the time it does you’ve already started checking your watch. It’s overlong, flawed, and the ending will make you go “Eh?” but on the flipside this is a film deeper and more intelligent than most you’ll see this year, and precious few blockbusters ever even reach for the moon, let alone the stars beyond, so the film needs to be lauded for trying, even if it doesn’t quite succeed.

Closer to a ten than a zero, but sadly not as close as it could have been.

  1. “They say you should shoot for the moon because if you miss you’ll be amongst the stars. Unfortunately sometimes you miss and end up in a dull, laborious orbit around the moon instead.”

    I love that line!

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