Qohen, pronounced Cohen but often referred to as merely Q, is a reclusive mathematical genius working for a company named Mancom. The job requires he labor over a formula that makes zero equal 100%. In this way they hope to prove the reason for human existence: “everything adds up to nothing”. If you haven’t guessed from that, Qohen lives in a future dystopia. It’s a cacophonous society of advertising where talking adverts actually follow you as you walk down the street. Qohen is suffering from his own existential crisis. He’s searching for meaning in a world run by heartless corporations. Christoph Waltz plays a bloke who is a bit off his rocker. The hairless introvert refers to himself as “we” and constantly waits at home for a phone call he believes will give him the answer he needs.
Apparently The Zero Theorem completes a trilogy. Terry Gilliam’s dystopian satires began with 1985’s Brazil and continued on through 1995 with Twelve Monkeys. Similar in spirit, there’s no denying that the production has visually appealing aspects. The atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic as most of the action takes place in Qohen’s cluttered home, a repurposed cathedral that has been abandoned. Gilliam appoints the room with little details like a collage. Director Gilliam surrounds Waltz with seasoned thespians in supporting roles. Unfortunately the parts are too shallow to make much of an impression. Tilda Swinton ends her succession of phenomenal films with a role that feels like a cheap imitation of her dictatorial character from Snowpiercer. The 2nd half improves with the arrival of newcomer Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a seductive femme fatale that could either be his one true love or perhaps just a mere distraction.
Despite my fairly level-headed distillation of the plot, The Zero Theorem has no objective to entertain with a coherent story. It’s a vague rumination of a concept. The lack of specifics makes the disastrous beginning extremely hard to sit through. My consistent thought during the first half: What in the name of Egon Pearson is this movie about?! There are creative features of the society that do captivate. Robin Williams briefly appears on a billboard that promotes “The Church of Batman the Redeemer”. Party-goers dance to music on their own cell phones instead of what’s playing at the party. Terry Gilliam’s world building is impressive. But look past those amusing gags and we’re left with an inkling of an idea unable to support a compelling narrative. It recalls his brilliant Brazil in style but not in substance. The Zero Theorem is a thoroughly uninvolving exercise in abstract thought, and it’s not even a very interesting one at that.