Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem might best be described as science fantasy rather than science fiction, as the stunning visuals offer little resemblance to anything remotely related to real-world implementations of technology. The film’s world — premised on a company called Mancom — resembles a dystopian realm that might result from a steam-punk data center slamming headlong into Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
This realm appears dystopian in many ways, but with plenty of money and jobs, recreation time, digital porn, and little concern about environmental degradation. (The one explicit comment alluding to a missing ozone layer sounds completely out of place because it applies only to one character and no one else). Gilliam clearly views the world through a different lens than the rest of us, a lens that comes with a permission slip to let internal consistency slide.
While I find that the visuals in The Zero Theorem — now available on iTunes — stretch extrapolations of technology, the plot is quite simple: Mancom’s leader, known just as Management (Matt Damon), has assigned Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) to prove, by solving the Zero Theorem, that life has no meaning. Management means to pursue a very lucrative endeavor, to sell order to those experiencing chaos.
Hapless worker Leth, on the other hand, seeks nothing more than the solitude of telecommuting from his former cathedral-turned-apartment, and to receive a phone call that will confirm for him that life has meaning. After a couple of encounters with Management and a future love interest, Leth is assigned to Zero Theorem. Motivated by the antithesis of Management’s hypothesis, Leth becomes the perfect man for the job.
As months pass, Leth becomes increasingly stressed and mentally unstable. Zero Theorem, which has driven many a man “daft”, takes its toll. An artificial intelligence, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), is assigned to provide psychological guidance.
In another supportive thread, blond party bombshell, life saver, and sexual reliever Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) arrives to help keep Leth sane while he video-games his way to salvation. Amid the film’s expansive and overt commentary on current conditions, Bainsley serves as an unusually coherent and conventional character, the corporate tool driven by love to go “off book”. She’s anomalous, though, as most of The Zero Theorem provides a steady incline to ambivalence, with Leth arranging blocks of equations into walls and cascades that work the theorem toward a 100 percent certain solution.
The real journey here is a mental one, though the movie runs into a typical problem: watching a programmer code doesn’t tell you anything. Here we see a successful, apparently wealthy, if emotionally bereft programmer applying his craft and acting out when he is frustrated, but we know nothing about the process going on in his mind. We can intuit little about what the blocks mean, and even less about the towers they build and the cascade into which they dissolve.
The entirety of The Zero Theorem comes across like an abstract painting hung behind glass. We see the shapes at a distance, but we aren’t sure what they mean. When the pivotal interface arrives, one mean to meld Leth mind-and-body with the machine, we aren’t awed, but rather underwhelmed, as he appears more an electrified version of a Christmas tree elf than a being ready to meet his transcendence. That leaves it to the one to make up an own inner story, but because the technology misaligns with real world analogs, it’s hard to picture oneself in Leth’s mind. That Leth refers to himself in what may be an ironic royal “we”, does nothing to bring him closer to the viewer.
Gilliam has sought the meaning of life in previous films, most pointlessly and pointedly in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The Zero Theorem continues that quest while melding it with another of the artist’s passions, the story of the disenfranchised worker stuck under a corporate thumb that seems to wiggle at whim. The intersection makes for a visually interesting narrative mess, but that does nothing to find an answer, apart from chaos and nothingness, which Management states as his real goal.
The Zero Theorem does offer a payoff of sorts, as Leth discovers that he is himself a spent tool and that his dream of finding meaning whispered from the earpiece of phone has not just been postponed, but canceled. As Leth stands on the edge of a swirling vortex, Waltz’s face dances with realization that ends up as a twinkle in the eye, a realization that Management may be right, that life has no meaning, but also that he might program his own future, not quite a life, but something His descent, into the abyss of what appears to be a black hole of ultimate meaninglessness, deposits him, naked, on the shores of virtual contentment.
On this surreal shore, Leth nonchalantly puts aside artifacts of a lost love, a final shedding of his humanity, so that he can, in his naked solitude, quite literally play with the world in which he finds himself. If he created it, or if it was created for him, it doesn’t matter. Qohen Leth ends the film as master of his own domain. The Zero Theorem would be a better film had Gilliam mustered as much control of Zero Theorem as does Leth.