With each generation comes the same feeling of nothingness and monotony to the present. People get stuck in dead-end jobs with neuroses and apprehensions, and the new wave of technology doesn’t appear to change much. Terry Gilliam’s ‘80s sci-fi “Brazil” captured the Orwellian state with such surreal humor and visual creativity that its now 30-year-old vision of the 21st Century has made it a cult classic.
Gilliam’s latest “The Zero Theorem” is awfully close to being “Brazil 2.0”, a satirical reimagining of another not-too-distant future that matches “Brazil” structurally, visually and to an extent thematically. Critics have faulted Gilliam for doing a remix of his greatest hits, but his idiosyncratic message is as relevant now as it was then.
“The Zero Theorem” tells the story of Qohen (Christoph Waltz), pronouncing his name “Cohen” with a Q, but no U. Years ago he received a phone call that he believed would tell him the meaning of why he was put on this Earth, but he got disconnected in excitement and now lives in an old church vicariously waiting for that call back. His work involves a new form of computer programming, one that has reduced work to video gaming and inscrutable equations. Qohen begs his supervisor (David Thewlis) to work from home to await his precious call, and in exchange, Management (Matt Damon) puts him to the task of deciphering The Zero Theorem.
“Everything adds up to nothing,” a colleague, teenager and hotshot programmer named Bob (Lucas Hedges) explains. “That’s what you’re trying to prove.” Qohen begins the film literally staring into space, a deep vortex in the galaxy spiraling out of control and engulfing everything. He’s assigned by his corporation to prove that in the end of existence there is no afterlife, just chaos, as there was in the beginning. It’s an improvable paradox, and yet we look even though the proof will only bring us pain.
The spiritual metaphor is a bit too on the nose, but of course with it all comes a big helping of wit, color, cynicism and broad social satire. Fans of Gilliam will recognize the gaudy, industrialized vision he conjures, in which the world is enormously cluttered, everything seems to be detachable and moving, and the camera floats and finds abstract canted angles with ease.
It’s all charmingly absurd. There’s the church of Batman, advertisements that careen along buildings to keep pace with pedestrians, mysterious hands that extract vials from Qohen’s cubicle and Management’s ability to blend his outfit with the drapery.
What’s new is a virtual reality chat room hosted by Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a buxom blonde who bestows Qohen with a head of hair in his fantasy and a purpose to escape. As Qohen enters the chat room, a lounge singer’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” hits the nail on the head about “What the hell are we doing here?”
“The Zero Theorem” is not among Gilliam’s best, but trying to identify the shortcomings and similarities in comparison to “Brazil” is like trying to solve Qohen’s proof: it adds up to nothing. “The Zero Theorem” is nearly as inventive, intriguing and bizarrely funny as its predecessor and a good example of the fantastical escape we need.
3 ½ stars