By Simon Miraudo
May 12, 2015
The future has come and gone in Terry Gilliam‘s The Zero Theorem. Well, that’s if you ask the omnipresent talking billboards of his dystopia, who loudly shout such inane, “obey”-style advertisements to deadened passers-by. To think: the chattiness of marketing isn’t even the most depressing part of this universe. Gilliam’s latest, scripted by Pat Rushin, tells of a time from now in which a massive corporation sets its drone-like employees to work on unravelling the equation for existence, and, perhaps even more terrifyingly, business shorts have been popularised.
Christoph Waltz plays Qohen (pronounced ‘Cohen’) Leth, a man of faith who thinks the meaning of life is just a phone-call away; if only that ginormous, ever-watchful corporation ManCom would let him complete his projects from the comfort of his home, an abandoned church, just in case those with the answers he’s after decide to ring. Management (a bleached blonde Matt Damon) grants his wish, provided he start tinkering away on the fabled ‘Zero Theorem’ project: an attempt to prove that life is ultimately meaningless. It’s a troubling task for this true believer of divine purpose, so ManCom throws a few perks Qohen’s way: computerised therapist Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) and callgirl Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who exclusively practices tantric interfacing in the world of virtual reality. It’s frustrating.
So too, many would say, is The Zero Theorem, as narratively alienating as Gilliam’s most abstract efforts, and a fitting companion to recent someday-satires Cosmopolis and Holy Motors. But not Her. Spike Jonze‘s Oscar-winner approached loneliness, love, companionship, consumerism, and even the technological singularity with sensitivity and insight but only mild scepticism (to its detriment, I don’t know). Consider this the anti-Her: a scathing, super-stylised tirade against relationships, religion and capitalism (and especially the corrupt intersection where those last two things meet).
Still, while veering in the other direction, The Zero Theorem perhaps turns the wheel too hard and misses an opportunity to ask truly intriguing questions. Qohen, always referring to himself in the collective sense as ‘we’ or ‘us’, is a not-so-secret stand-in for, well, we and us. Gilliam and Rushi, then, are imploring the audience… to live better? An earlier sequence, in which the attendees at a party wander around with individual iPads and headphones playing their preferred music, would seem to suggest the same. Hidden beneath the dazzling visuals, incomprehensible doublespeak, and ambiguous ending is a simple, conventional message, made famous by John Lennon decades ago. To paraphrase: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy awaiting an imaginary phone-call and trying to solve the mysteries of the cosmos while engaging in VR foreplay dressed in a stretchy red onesie. (Was that how the song went?)
A totally-bald Waltz admirably pours his everything into Leth, and the supporting cast (also including David Thewlis as a colleague and Lucas Hedges as Management’s hacker son) similarly throw themselves into this mad movie with great zeal. Gilliam’s world-building is superlative here, as always, and his regular, half-blind, tilt-loving cinematographer Nicola Pecorini sweepingly explores it to fine effect. Yet, there’s nothing more amazing in his film than the fact he was able to make it all. Apparently, the only major catastrophe this one faced in pre-production were a few shooting delays and changes of actors. Compared to his previous projects, that’s smooth sailing. Perhaps there is a God.
The Zero Theorem arrives in Australian cinemas May 15, 2015.