Terry Gilliam has made a career out of directing films that feel like they're ready to jump the tracks at any moment. Both his best films and his worst films tend to feel handmade and dangerous, like everything you see on-screen is on constant verge of collapse. There's an anarchy behind his vision, a devil-may-care attitude that makes it clear that he's making movies for him and him alone and that if you just so happen to fall into his vision, that's okay. Sometimes, this results in a masterpiece like Brazil. Sometimes, you get The Zero Theorem, a film that's as off-putting and alienating as anything Gilliam has ever made.
In typical Gilliam fashion, The Zero Theorem takes place in a nightmarish near-future full of awful fashion, over-complicated technology and way too much signage. This crazy satiric world provides the film with most of its laughs (even if the satire isn't particularly subtle), so it's a shame that the bulk of the film takes place in the home of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a lonely and deranged computer hacker who has been assigned by Management (Matt Damon in a tiny cameo) to crack "the zero theorem," a mysterious and seemingly impossible-to-decipher puzzle. Waltz, inexplicably hairless and often hilariously broad, does everything he can to carry the film, but he's let down by his hit-and-miss supporting cast and a screenplay that clashes with Gilliam's penchant for slapstick theatrics. This is a film that's at war with itself.
Many of the individual elements do work. Waltz, who seemingly can't give an outright terrible performance if he tried, certainly does what he can with the enigmatic by ultimately one-dimensional Qohen. Gilliam himself certainly doesn't phone things in, utilizing his usual bag of tricks (wide lenses, low angles, an emphasis on grotesques) to their fullest effect. It's difficult to dismiss The Zero Theorem because it's not a lazy or unambitious project. However, that's what ultimately makes it such a grand misfire: it's a homemade rocket ship on its way to Mars -- impressive that it exists, but ready to crumple the moment it leaves the atmosphere.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is how undefined Qohen, his job, and his goals truly are. Although we see that he's a troubled man who works to solve life's greatest mysteries for a major corporation, the film never gives us more than a skin-deep glimpse of the man or his world. His daily task of solving equations through a bizarre, video game-esque program is never explored or explained, which wouldn't be a problem if it weren't such a significant portion of the film. We spend too much time watching Qohen attempt to solve a puzzle without even having a basic idea of what he's trying to accomplish and how he can accomplish it. There's mystery and then there's vague for vague's sake. What you think is a puzzle that the audience can solve along with the characters turns out to simply be shoddy world-building.
There's a strong chance that The Zero Theorem is going to demand multiple viewings in order to fully understand what's going on in a scene-by-scene basis, but the rest of the film is enough of a slog to deter that. As strong as Waltz is with his limited character, he spends most of the film lurking around his massive church turned apartment, yelling at graphics on a computer screen. When he's not alone, he's falling in love with a cybersex worker named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and befriending teenage tech genius Bob (Lucas Hedges) who operate on one note and one note alone, making the vast majority of the film a genuinely unpleasant experience. Hedges is particularly awful, delivering his lines in a flat monotone that would get him kicked out of a high school play. Since most of the film takes place in one room and involves this trio of characters interacting, the result is lengthy scenes of characters discussing work that we're never given a chance to understand. When the conversation moves on from work, it falls into the worst possible cliches. Do you expect Brainsley to become a love interest? Do you expect Bob to fundamentally change Qohen's life like kids always do to adult loners in the movies? The most obvious answer is correct. When Gilliam occasionally indulges in his worst habits and brings in grotesque caricatures who have no business in the movie, it's a relief: they're worthless, but at least they're a break from everyone else.
Pat Rushin's small, brainy script ultimately does take the film to a few clever places, but until the final 15 minutes, it's mostly people standing around a single room talking about nonsense. Science fiction doesn't need scope, but if you're going to trap an audience in one place with a small cast for nearly two hours, you've got to give them a reason to care. You've got to give them enough rope to follow, understand and comprehend. The reasons to care come late and they're unsatisfying, making you wonder if the point of The Zero Theorem would have been better served by a short film rather than a feature. This is a film that's about big ideas, but it thinks it can coast on those ideas, letting the rest of the story wallow in endless dialogue and muck.
Terry Gilliam's place in the pantheon of great filmmakers is secure, but like the similarly ambling and unpleasant Tideland, The Zero Theorem is a noble but colossal misfire. It's the kind of a disaster that only a truly great filmmaker can produce. We're going to be talking about this one for awhile, even if it's not particularly good.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: