Terry Gilliam presents sci-fi drama ‘The Zero Theorem’

John Villarose VI
Staff Writer

Typically, films fall into one of two categories: the light-hearted, fun, but relatively mindless films and the deeper, meaningful films which require a certain amount of active participation from the viewer. Shockingly, “The Zero Theorem” manages to land in a sort of grey area between the two, and whether or not this is a good thing is completely dependent on the audience’s preference.

Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz and newcomer Mélanie Thierry star in “The Zero Theorem.”
Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz and newcomer Mélanie Thierry star in “The Zero Theorem.”

“The Zero Theorem” is the latest project from director Terry Gilliam, an artist who is nothing short of an icon in the film industry. He rose to critical acclaim in the 1970s, releasing a major success every ten years: “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in 1975, “Brazil” in 1985, and ?12 Monkeys” in 1995. His work since then has been less acclaimed, but his less well-received films, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” still attained cult status. Gilliam is particularly notable for his unusual use of color and his focus on the bizarre, both of which transfer over particularly well into “The Zero Theorem.” Anyone not used to Gilliam’s work is in for a treat. Bright neon colors are constantly juxtaposed with a gritty, unnerving setting, leaving viewers both amazed and unsettled simultaneously. Those not drawn in by its story may still be dazzled by its artsmanship.

A surprising mix of both major stars and lesser-known faces show up, and fortunately, the former doesn’t overshadow the latter. The focus of the film is Christoph Waltz’s Qohen Leth, an odd man who notable for his fixation on his work and his unusual use of pronouns. Just coming off two Oscar wins (Best Supporting Actor for “Inglourious Basterds” in 2009 and for “Django Unchained” in 2012), Waltz shines yet again in one of his only starring roles since he began working in American film. He shares the spotlight with newcomers Mélanie Thierry and Lucas Hedges, both of which give memorable performances as Bainsley and Bob, respectively. They are characters who, though interesting, don’t seem to have their stories finished. Both serve the purpose of changing Qohen, with Bainsley playing on oversexualized stereotypes and Bob reflecting Qohen’s age while also forming a particularly unexpected friendship. Likewise, Matt Damon’s role as a mysterious person simply named Management is compelling, yet unfortunately underused.

Matt Damon stars as a mysterious man known only as Management.
Matt Damon stars as a mysterious man known only as Management.

What will make or kill the film for viewers is the plot which can only be described as convoluted. The plot revolves around Qohen’s work for an authoritarian company run by Management that the audience knows almost nothing about. Qohen is tasked with proving the zero theorem, which essentially boils down to a search for the meaning of life. However, the audience is frequently left confused and without answers, which may just be the point of the film. Though the plot doesn’t give the audience everything it needs to fully appreciate the film, the philosophical questions are compelling and the use of symbolism, particularly that of the hammer, is powerful.

“The Zero Theorem” is designed in such a way that leaves the viewer, like Qohen, searching for solutions to a puzzle that simply aren’t there. That’s not to say nothing can be taken away from the film, but those looking for a definite deeper meaning are better off looking elsewhere. However, those who are fans of Gilliam’s work, in addition to those who don’t necessarily mind being confused, are likely to have quite a bit of fun working with Qohen to understand the zero theorem.