A new film from Terry Gilliam, the eccentric director behind sci-fi classics ‘Brazil’ and ’12 Monkeys’, is always a cause for celebration, and the prospect of ‘The Zero Theorem’ is a tantalising one which sees him teaming up with the exceptionally talented Christoph Waltz and returning to a cyberpunk day-glo future. Sadly, though, perhaps suffering from the weight of expectation, the whole experience feels incredibly flat. The visual styling and design creativity is – as you’d expect from Gilliam – fantastic. A decaying dystopian city is glossed over with animated neon adverts, fluorescent clothes and forced smiles – a riot of cables and machinery wrap themselves over gothic architecture in every frame. It looks beautiful and is a fun place to while away two hours, but everything else is just markedly uninvolving and disappointingly hollow.
Waltz stars as Qohen, an exceptionally gifted data cruncher who lives an isolated existence away from the gaudy lights of the outside world. Tasked by ‘Management’ with the special job of solving the Zero Theorem, an apparently unsolvable mathematical problem of stellar importance, he locks himself away, dedicated to finding the solution – all the while holding out hope of receiving a mysterious phone call that will provide his life with meaning. An encounter with the seductive temptress Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) reawakens the pleasures of the flesh, but Qohen is consumed by the futility of his own existence, only able to find solace in the tedium of his work.
All of the offbeat eccentricities are slightly forced, feeling odd for the sake of it: in some ways it’s as if someone has requested a film similar to ‘Brazil’ but not really understood its wit or satire. There are interesting ideas here that play with existential angst and the futility of life in a digital world – but they are half finished thoughts the film is not articulate or engaging enough to do much with. Overall ‘The Zero Theorem’ is fundamentally flawed as it provides no connection to Qohen. A socially awkward loner often makes for the best central character, offering an interesting perspective on their world – but he is so distant and unreadable there is no engagement to be had with the character, or the film. Waltz does perfectly acceptable work but he is hindered by the shallow material.
And this is how the film passes by, like a reel of bizarre, pretty stuff happening on the screen. You don’t really care where it is heading. You feel as segregated from the experience as Qohen is from the world. That said, it is thoroughly watchable, containing several moments of biting wit, and the spectacle itself more than justifies a watch. Maybe if this wasn’t a Gilliam film it would be discarded more easily – but there is still something intriguingly human under all the nonsense machines and flashing lights that suggest it warrants a re-watch at 11pm on a Friday night in 12 months' time when the burden of expectation and hype has faded.