The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem photo starrating-2stars.jpgQohen, 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.


19 Responses to “The Zero Theorem”

  1. Too Bad. I really ♥ Walz and Gilliam. I can’t think of many trilogies that pull forth the excitement or intellectualism of the first.


  2. Great review. I admire your attention to the movies details.

    But i decided to give it passing marks. For one, i easily get engaged with stories of futuristic worlds. like you said “this was visually appealing”. Second, I tried to keep the story focused on 2 points : the phone call and the sight of the universe with that swirling vortex. Its an existentialist tale, so I found those 2 points quite symbolic. It kept me watching because I was interested in how it was all going to end.

    I will agree however that it lacks the ” objective to entertain”. Many of the characters were eccentric. But the events surrounding them were not that entertaining. So I only give it 3 stars, passing marks but not a very good movie.


    • It was a hastily assembled film. This was Gilliam’s shortest shoot since MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. The schedule comprised of a mere 36 shooting days, which involved 28 days in the studio, and eight days on location.


  3. Nice review. I agree with some of your criticisms, in particular the little detail some of the supporting characters receive. But I really enjoyed The Zero Theorem, and found it an enthralling character study.


    • I’m glad you found it gripping. Terry Gilliam has directed some of my favorite films, so I know he is capable of greatness, but everything after 12 Monkeys has been a disappointment for me.


  4. This looks very boring. Not your review of course. But the concept, the poster and just about everything you mentioned about it. I’ll take your advice with the failed score and skip this one!


  5. Damn! This is a much bigger disappointment than to hear about the letdown of The Boxtrolls. I really, really thought this could be something special. I suppose when I do check this out, I’ll either be able to see vague hints of potential or just be frustrated completely as well. Damn.


    • The Boxtrolls were my biggest disappointment of 2014 thus far.

      Based on Laika’s recent offerings, I had reason to believe The Boxtrolls would be in my Top 10 for 2014. In contrast, Terry Gilliam hasn’t directed a success since 12 Monkeys in 1995 so the letdown was more expected in this case.

      That and the advance reviews for The Zero Theorem were positively abysmal.


  6. I liked the colorful creative outdoors. But that was it. 1 1/2 stars.


  7. While I personally loved this film, I am a professed Gilliam fanboy. Great review, I can definetely see where you are coming from. Though for me, I love films that have plots that a re a bit like a puzzle. Another film that really did that for me this year was The Double, I have seen that three times already!!

    Great writing mate


  8. My thought is, we don’t even need The Zero Theorem as a supposed third entry in the Brazilogy. Snowpiercer was released this year. Granted, it wasn’t directed by Gilliam, but it wouldn’t have been a smidge different if it was.


  9. I tend to like Terry Gilliam, but I’m not sure I’d enjoy this film since it sounds more like Brazil (which I don’t appreciate) than 12 Monkeys (which I do). Plus based on your description, it seems like there isn’t much substance when you look past Gilliam’s world building. What a bummer to waste someone as talented as Christoph Waltz in a movie like this.


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