The Zero Theorem is playing at The Nightlight Cinema September 20 – October 2, 2014. For showtimes visit their website.
Film Review by O.A. Scott
The opening images of “The Zero Theorem” could hardly be more arresting: a man, naked and hairless, sits in front of an oversize computer screen in surroundings that are at once archaic and futuristic. The technology is advanced, while the décor hovers somewhere between late Victorian and mid-20th-century modern. The man’s name, which people often forget or get wrong, is Qohen Leth. He lives in an abandoned church and commutes on foot through chaotic city streets to a soul-crushing job doing something with data for a corporation owned by an elusive Big Brother-like figure known only as Management.
Management eventually shows up in the person of Matt Damon. Qohen is played by Christoph Waltz as a fast-talking, perpetually anxious holy fool who refers to himself in the first person plural. Other significant characters include Management’s teenage son, Bob (Lucas Hedges); Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a young woman who awakens Qohen’s long-dormant romantic and sexual interests; and Joby (David Thewlis), Qohen’s cheerful and obnoxious supervisor at work. Qohen’s therapist is a bit of software that turns into Tilda Swinton on his computer screen. All of them and the funky dystopia they inhabit spring from the fertile, undisciplined imagination of Terry Gilliam.
That fact makes “The Zero Theorem,” written by Pat Rushin, a lively viewing experience, thanks to Mr. Gilliam’s perpetual-motion shooting style and his witty, allusive visual vocabulary. Every frame is dense with information, some of it in the service of the film’s allegorical intention, some of it there for fun. Mr. Gilliam has been, since his days as an animator for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” a tirelessly inventive filmmaker. He has also occasionally ascended to the level of visionary, in particular with the prescient, still-potent science-fiction satire “Brazil.”
Admirers of that movie will find echoes of its themes and traces of its look here, but they will miss its intellectual vigor and narrative momentum. The ideas that animate “The Zero Theorem” — about the erosion of individuality in a technocratic, corporate-dominated society and about the collapsing boundary between work and leisure — are certainly no less relevant now than they were in the 1980s. They just don’t feel very fresh or fully integrated into a coherent speculative world.
Management enlists Qohen in the top-secret, super-important project of proving the hypothesis that gives the film its title. The theory, in a nutshell, is that “everything adds up to nothing,” and poor Qohen chases mathematical confirmation through an endless, Lego-like virtual landscape. He takes a break for cyber-canoodling with Bainsley, a thinly imagined erotic fantasy who nonetheless restores some of his humanity. But even as Mr. Gilliam assails the tedium and pointlessness of Qohen’s existence, “The Zero Theorem” succumbs to those forces, spinning its wheels and repeating its jokes in a manic frenzy that is never as funny or as mind-blowing as it wants to be.
The Nightlight Cinema
30 N High St.
Akron, OH 44308