The future was so much better in the past. Back before the alluring voice-operated computer systems, azure blue swipe displays, and reams of green and black code there existed an alternate version of the future. A future that showed a world very much like our own but featuring glittering costumes and translucent, rainbow-coloured pieces of plastic that intermittently and nonsensically bibbled and bobbled. The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam’s latest experiment, is a film set squarely in that future.
Bereft of hair and riddled with existential angst, Christoph Waltz dominates the screen as Qohen, a reclusive, painfully awkward, computer genius. When not fidgeting manically with joysticks and coloured cubes at the Orwellian mega-corporation Mancom, Qohen spends his time at home in a dilapidated church where he anxiously and obsessively awaits a phone call that he thinks will tell him the meaning of life. The world outside is alien to him, but a real treat for the viewer.
Gilliam’s city of the future is a gorgeously constructed mash-up of the sacred and profane – where stained glass sits alongside the ever-present fluorescent advertising, and mossy gargoyles watch over all the neon absurdity of the city. When Management (a fleeting Matt Damon) invites Qohen to work from home on the Zero Theorem project, a seemingly uncrackable conundrum, he jumps at the opportunity to be closer to the phone, despite the fact that Zero Theorem has driven everyone who has worked on it over the edge of sanity.
It is a feeling that viewers may be forced to become familiar with as the film stutters along. Like in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam has a gift for creating these unique, captivating worlds with sets that you can lose yourself in. The interior of Qohen’s home is like a psychedelic charity shop display, populated by a wonderful mish-mash of antique religious paraphernalia and colourful technology. In one shot you’ll find attention split between the gibberish that Qohen is prone to spouting, the abstracted code he is working on, and the flashing red light on the security camera mounted in place of Jesus’ head watching over him. It quickly becomes apparent that The Zero Theorem is a film with a strong visual identity but a much weaker ideological one, so much is added to the cauldron – a femme fatale, a hacker kid, an annoying boss, dwarves, hitmen, the meaning of life, and cybersex dream sequences– that the story becomes more cluttered than the sets and at points almost grinds to a halt.
Things are not helped along by Waltz’s Qohen, a protagonist who is as clunky and awkward to watch as he is difficult to warm to. Mélanie Thierry and Lucas Hedges provide some welcome relief but they make clear that Qohen’s stiffness isn’t unique. All characters suffer through the dialogue, which is overhanded and often milks the life from jokes that were mediocre to begin with. We are so familiar with the satirical, irreverent humour that the script hopes for, that there’s a sense of frustration as it misses the mark time after time. Part theological commentary, part technological prophesy, part failed comedy, The Zero Theorem is a confusing film that feels perpetually poised to take off, but never does – for all its colour and pizzazz, its future seems dark, and destined only for fans of Gilliam.