Terry Gilliam is definitely an acquired taste. His new Zero Theorem satisfies all the Gilliam film prerequisites: weird camera angles, eccentric characters, vibrant visuals, and complicated themes. Audience beware, you will be challenged to pay attention and engage in a little active viewing. If you didn’t like 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas you probably won’t like this one. If you’re a fan, you won’t be disappointed.
The movie centers on the existential crisis of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a semi-autistic man working as a computer programmer for a large corporation. He believes he is dying because he doesn’t know the meaning of his life. To find his purpose, he eagerly waits for a phone call that will tell him. The head of the corporation, a character called Management (Matt Damon), agrees to let him work from home and wait for his call in exchange for working on solving the Zero Theorem, a mysterious mathematical formula.
The movie is loaded with satire. Gilliam’s vision of the future is a hedonistic one, a world obsessed with virtual entertainment. He included his usual bizarre setting and costumes as well. The people around Qohen wear neon colors, outrageous outfits, plastic jackets, wigs, and keep their attention focused on their phones and iPods. When Qohen leaves his home he is bombarded with neon billboards, electronic ads, people flying by on roller skates, and people coming in and out of the sex shop next store. It is a not so subtle satirical take on the decadence of consumerism today.
If I had to sum up the main theme, it would be the choice between believing in something no matter how crazy or irrational, and believing in nothing.
The Zero Theorem is the antithesis of Qohen’s irrational belief in a supernatural phone call. It is the mathematical proof that concludes life is meaningless and at the end of the universe everything will become nothing. Everything equals zero. To believe in the Zero Theorem is to believe in nothing. To believe in nothing leaves an enormous emptiness. Rather than face the reality of a life without meaning, people fill the void with drugs, sex, and nonstop amusement. People avoid talking about anything serious or profound, anything that would force them to face their worthlessness. Management wants to prove the theorem to convince people that life has no deeper profound meaning, thereby turning them toward material pursuits.
Qohen’s colleague, Bob, is a believer in the theorem. The bratty teenage computer programmer demands constant amusement and stimulation. His life is filled with games, music, porn, and anything else that will help fight the boredom. Once bored, he is forced to deal with his life and its lack of purpose. During their work, Bob tries to convince Qohen nothing matters. It all equals zero.
Qohen is repulsed by the theorem. The socially awkward programmer lives in an old half-burnt monastery, afraid of venturing out because of the all important call. He believes that something in the universe will give him purpose. His greatest fear is missing the call and being swallowed into the nothingness of the world around him. His dreams are haunted with visions of being sucked into a black hole in space.
When Qohen loses interest in proving the theorem, Management sends Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) to loosen him up. She is a corporate prostitute, webcam girl, and all-round exhibitionist. With her sexy, skin-tight outfits, bubbly personality, and virtual sex interface, she is sent to turn Qohen away from his phone call and toward the theorem. Qohen falls for Bainsley and promises to quit his job and stay with her in virtual reality. Fearing reprisals from management, she recoils from him and cuts off the virtual feed. Despite her initial rejection, she later asks him to run away with her. Except this time the colorful, skin-tight outfit is replaced with a shawl, khaki pants, and a thick jacket.
Her transformation from hypersexual exhibitionist to modest lovestruck woman comes with her rejection of the nothingness. In a way, she never really adopted the nothingness. She was looking for something to believe all along. The intro music to her website is a version of Radiohead’s song “Creep.” Why does an attention-seeking sex starlet love a song about being a freak? She feels like she doesn’t belong.
I love the movie for its depth, satire, and criticism in the belief in nothing. In the empty world, corporations rule society and keep everyone as lowly employees addicted to their products. Their objective is to detach everyone from their own beliefs, embrace the nothingness and then try to fill it with stuff. The end result is clear. Bob is absolutely miserable. He is addicted, and is terrified of boredom. He has never known love, has no friends, no interests.
Even the bubbly Bainsley is unhappy. She uses sex as a distraction from an inner pain and emptiness. There are hints her hypersexuality is the result of an abusive father. She craves attention from others, like many women in Gilliam’s empty world. In one scene, a pizza delivery girl walks into Qohen’s home and unzips her jacket to reveal she is wearing a low-cut top and shorts underneath. She wanted Qohen and Bob to notice her and ignore the pizza.
Unfortunately, the Zero Theorem itself is discussed in only two short scenes. Despite the titular formula, Gilliam doesn’t go into it. The conflict is simplified to a choice between decadence and irrational belief. Although there is supposed to be a genuine affection between Qohen and Bainsley, they never develop any chemistry. Instead, it is more of an awkward exchange between hooker and reluctant john. Many will be disappointed in the ending, although I loved it. The movie is not a comedy or traditional drama, but a tragedy. Americans tend to dislike tragedies. Guess I’m weird in that way.