It’s possible that someone coming to The Zero Theorem having never seen a Terry Gilliam movie before would find it fantastic: It is, after all, a colorful, dizzying, deeply idiosyncratic fantasy, full of familiar stars playing unfamiliar and distinctly weird roles as they push toward a surreal conclusion. What’s not to like? But for longtime Gilliam fans, the answer is, “A pervasive sense of déjà vu.” It isn’t just that Gilliam’s ragged, wild style is easily recognizable after nearly four decades of feature films, it’s a sense that Zero Theorem recycles its tone, visual design, and plot points directly from his past work. That’s an oddity, since Gilliam didn’t write the script; it came from author and first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin, based on his own novella. But regardless of how Gilliam may have finessed the material, the finished film feels like a heavily edited Gilliam show-reel—not just like a director working in a signature style, but like a crazy-quilt sewn together from well-known fragments.
Inglourious Basterds/Django Unchained Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a seemingly mentally ill employee of a Big Brother-ish mega-corporation called ManCom. Qohen is a fussy, nervous hypochondriac and misanthrope who refers to himself in the plural and has generally rejected pleasure in life. (Offered a grape, he nervously responds, “Our diet dictates against any foods with perceptible flavor.”) Qohen once received a phone call promising him a purpose in life, but he dropped the receiver in excitement and lost the connection; now his life is spent waiting for, and obsessing about, a callback. Meanwhile, he works as an “entity cruncher” for ManCom, manipulating bits of mathematical formulae around a virtual environment in a job that’s half videogame, half meaningless abstraction. When he begs to be allowed to work at home, where he can ignore the outside world and wait for his call, his chummy supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) shrugs off the request, but after an encounter with Management (Matt Damon), Qohen winds up entombed in his half-burned church home, losing his mind as he chases down the Zero Theorem, essentially a formula that would prove the meaninglessness of existence.
More than anything, Zero Theorem resembles Gilliam’s Brazil, with a dash of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy added to the design: Like Brazil’s Sam Lowry, Qohen is a capable, unusually valued cog in a broken machine, a system so chaotic and uncaring about its employees that its oppressive indifference comes across as malice. Zero Theorem’s world is brighter and sleeker than Brazil’s, with an emphasis on garishly mismatched clothing, overwhelmingly intrusive digital advertising on every possible surface, and a cacophony of insistent noise. But it has the same claustrophobic clutter, and the same sense of the absurdist paranoid panopticon, with cameras everywhere and ManCom’s insistent robo-voice constantly urging Qohen to work faster. It has the same sense of anarchy in motion, with a great deal of bustling and rush to absolutely no purpose, and the same perverse but malevolent cheer reflected in posters with slogans like, “Don’t ASK, multi-task!” and, “Management: Everything is under control.”
And when Qohen doesn’t feel like Sam Lowry, he turns into The Fisher King’s Parry, a mentally ill man with his own fractured coping mechanisms, a hallucinatory vision of hell pursuing him (in this case, a dream image of a black hole, sucking everything into oblivion), a possible romantic out, and an obsessive, fetishistic faith in a simple device that will rescue him. Other Gilliam elements crop up—Qohen skittering madly around his deserted church strongly recalls Jeliza-Rose banging around in her country retreat in Tideland, and the camera’s woozy dips and slants when Qohen goes to a party bring Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to mind. And above all, the story explores well-trod Gilliam themes, about an addled dreamer who can’t cope with what passes for the real world, and finds refuge in comforting fantasy.
That fantasy largely comes in the form of Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a sex worker who meets Qohen at a party and keeps casually ignoring his boundaries as she invades his life. Eventually, she offers him a creepy red onesie, complete with elven hood, glowing seam-veins, and Avatar-esque ponytail capable of plugging him into a virtual-reality haven she’s created for the two of them. Her dogged pursuit of him in spite of his nervousness and disinterest again strongly brings Brazil to mind, but with the genders flipped, though all sympathy, focus, and understanding still remains with him rather than her. Bainsley’s profound lack of development as a character is one of the film’s worst flaws, particularly considering where her story eventually goes. She’s the Hooker With A Heart Of Gold trope, just barely given flesh and breath. As important as their relationship becomes, it never has any sense of dimension.
That goes for much of the film. Zero Theorem has Gilliam’s warped sense of humor and never-failing talent for creative design and dynamic movement. Waltz is deliberately off-putting with his nasal whine and endless tics, but while none of his charisma leaks through this consciously unsettling performance, he still does impressive work as, essentially, a personification of neurotic anxiety. And while Gilliam’s rhythms are as anarchic and herky-jerky as his worlds, too unpredictable for a standard sense of rising action, he builds a terrific tension here, as Qohen works toward his breaking point, with no sense of what that might mean in a person who’s already so damaged. But the individual elements are all distractingly familiar: When equivalents to Brazil’s perky singing-telegram girl (in the form of a similarly perky pizza-delivery girl) and HVAC repairmen Spoor and Dowser (now as a similarly size-dysmorphic pair of deliverymen) show up, and the plot barrels toward a suspiciously recognizable ending, Zero Theorem has started to feel like a remix: new bassline, but the same old recognizable tune and lyrics, just chopped and spun a little differently.
(The Zero Theorem is currently available through streaming services. It will be released theatrically on September 19th.)