#12 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.
This movie has ideas, and it actually handles them with some intelligence, but it doesn’t really come together as a drama. The ideas take greater precedent over the actual storytelling, so the movie ends up suffering.
Starting with the visuals, though, I must comment that Gilliam’s normal visual flair is muted at best here. A quick piece of behind the scenes trivia: Gilliam did location scouting through Google Earth. He didn’t have the money to fly to Hungary and walk the streets for a week, he had to do it from his living room using a computer. In other words, this movie was made for cheap. A lot of comparisons get thrown between Brazil and The Zero Theorem. The more interesting comparison is between the endings, but mostly they get compared because they’re both visions of the future from Gilliam. Brazil had a budget to do big things. The Zero Theorem did not, and the movie ends up underwhelming visually because of that.
I want to focus on one small detail that doesn’t matter that much. When the main character Qohen Leth goes to a party, he’s surrounded by people dancing and listening to music. They do this by holding their smartphones with corded earbuds hanging from the sides of their heads. It’s just so…tacked on. It’s not even just little earbuds without a shown source, perhaps being smartphones in their entirety in this future, but instead it feels like Gilliam just had his actors pull out their own phones as a detail to this vision. Gilliam set out to create a new futuristic vision, but he didn’t have the means to do much more than hang cheap CGI ads onto existing Hungarian architecture and have his actors use their own phones. Most of the budget apparently went into building the central set that about 75% of the movie takes place on.
And that central set is underwhelming. It’s big and spacious, but most of the time the movie spends on that set is spent at the very center of it with a computer, undermining the ability to find new ways to film the action of the film. It ends up making the movie feel very small.
Now, that could be part of the point, so let me talk about theme and character real quick. Qohen is a loner who has to go into work at a weird cubicle every day, but he wants to remain by his phone at home to wait for a call he thinks is coming from a mysterious source that will tell him his purpose. He gets Management to approve him working from home by assigning him the eponymous Zero Theorem, an equation Qohen must prove that essentially amounts to “All is for Nothing.” It’s an inherently materialist point of view that Qohen rages against even while he spends over a year trying to work it.
So, the movie is about a loner looking for meaning in a materialistic world. The big, largely empty set where Qohen spends most of his time feels like it should be appropriate, but I ultimately find it frustrating simply based on the execution. It gets kind of boring to keep looking at the same little part of a set for over an hour of a 100-minute film. I would have expected Gilliam to keep it more visually engaging. To me, this feels like an unfair criticism, but after two viewings of the film I still feel the same way.
My other main problem is with two of the supporting characters. First is Bainsley, a vaguely European woman half Qohen’s age who becomes the love interest to an extent. Qohen first meets her at the party where he meets Management early in the film, and she latches onto him rather inexplicably. There is an explanation, though, in that she was paid to start her interactions with him, but as the relationship goes on, she pulls away from Management and gets attached to Qohen on her own. I don’t buy it. Qohen’s a weird loner who talks about himself in the first person plural all the time while never leaving his house, is uninterested in human interaction, is obsessing over proving something he doesn’t want to prove, and he’s twice her age and not terribly attractive. He represents something for her, an escape, which goes a partial way to explaining her behavior, but not enough presentation of her as a character
The problem goes the other way in the relationship as well. It would make sense for Qohen to feel like attaching himself to a beautiful young woman who throws herself at him, but she introduces herself as a woman who performs on the internet for men sexually. They grow closer, through the internet and some body suits that connect them, but Qohen pulls away when he meets her at her website, covered in sexualized images of her, at the wrong time and sees her putting on a show for other men that’s much more explicit that what she ever did with him. It’s this break that doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense, but, again, it represents Qohen realizing the limits of his knowledge of other people through technology.
The other secondary character that I have a problem with is Management’s son, Bob. Bob is essentially a walking exposition dump who explains things to Qohen and the audience, eventually disappearing from the film after he exhausts himself, crashes, and needs to be carried away. He does spend some of his time trying to pull Qohen from his tiny little shell, so it’s not a complete waste, getting Qohen to tell a very short version of his life story that included a marriage and divorce.
All through this is Qohen’s search for meaning through searching for lack of meaning. “Zero must equal one hundred percent,” his computer keeps repeating to him. Ultimately, Qohen realizes that looking for meaning from without is pointless, so he finds some solace in himself, alone on a digital beach.
The ending here and the ending in Brazil are really very similar in effect. Sam Lowry ended up catatonic and living his dream life with his dream girl while Qohen ends up catatonic in the real world while living his dream life alone on a beach, but they’re very different in tone. Brazil’s ending was a defeat, and The Zero Theorem’s is a victory. Of course, the natures of the fights are very different. The former is for freedom and the latter for meaning.
So, I’m of a mixed opinion on this. I do not think the movie works dramatically at all, but it’s obviously got a lot to think about just under the very broken surface. Chrisoph Waltz makes the most of his limited part of Qohen. Melanie Thierry is actually quite winning as Bainsley, and Lucas Hedges is kind of fun as Bob. It’s just that none of the parts are very good and a reminder that Terry Gilliam is very good directing actors. I also think that Matt Damon is very dryly funny as Management. But, the movie’s uncompelling visually and broken narratively. It’s a very interesting outlier in Gilliam’s filmography that way. It’s also one of the few he didn’t write.