“The Zero Theorem” (Directed by Terry Gilliam)


Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon

Terry Gilliam wants to know what makes us special.

What separates us, as individuals, from the hive mind of humanity, the constant background bzzz-bzzz-bzzz informing us what’s hot, what’s not and what is absolutely indispensable and available for only a limited time on approved credit and through bi-weekly payments with no cash down?

It’s a battle for reality, ladies and gentlemen, and our minds the killing ground, subjected to a flood of stimuli meant to excite our basic instincts and prevent us from thinking about the actual state of the world…and our benighted souls. God help the Powers That Be should we ever wake from the nightmare of invented history and discover what crimes they’re committing, the lies they so readily concoct and embroider to conceal their culpability. To avoid that possibility, governments and corporations conspire to pound it into our heads that the pursuit of happiness involves the acquisition of material possessions and the accumulation of debt, and that the spiritual ennui and colossal sense of unease we’re currently experiencing can be cured by a restorative trip to the nearest mall.

Qohen Leth (that’s pronounced Cohen, but spelled with a Q, no u) has been given an impossible task, solving the ultimate insoluble paradox (how can nothing = everything) and his mental exertions are driving him insane. Management (Matt Damon) has decreed that Qohen (Chistoph Waltz) be provided with the necessary resources, all the latest hardware and tools to achieve his goal—and that includes Ainsley (Melanie Thierry) to entice and reward him and Bob (Lucas Hedges), a fifteen year old prodigy who spends his waking hours writing endless streams of computer code in an effort to please his near omnipotent father. Qohen sequesters himself like a Medieval monk, pale and doughy from long hours at his console, devising his equations, trying to build a perfect, plausible, sustainable model for the Theory of Nothing and failing every time. His supervisor (David Thewlis) is sympathetic but makes it clear to Qohen that it is imperative he produce results and never mind that no one else has ever managed to lick the Zero Theorem or that Qohen’s exertions may leave him a burned out husk.

Christoph Waltz takes on the daunting responsibility of trying to get us to relate with a man who, throughout most of the film, is little more than a cipher. Monotonic, indisinct, robot-like. An individual disconnected from himself by a trauma likely prompted by his wife’s departure. Now he lives only through his work as a highly prized number cruncher for ManCom. Indeed, it is his mathematic aptitude that recommends him to Management. But as detached and removed from humanity as Qohen may be, he still feels a yearning for something beyond his present circumstances, an epiphany or insight that has nothing to do with his vocation. There is an emptiness inside Qohen, a void…and part of him dreams of pouring something like purpose into it, filling that great silence. Waltz never falters in the central role; he gradually comes to life as the film progresses and by its conclusion we realize we have been treated to a subtle, psychologically astute performance.

Director Terry Gilliam has devoted great efforts detailing the damage exposure to our gaudy consumerist society is having on us and has collaborated with his admirable cast and crew to create a near future that equates individuals with ambulatory shopping bags and translates our every whim into a disposable commodity. To stand out in such an environment is to invite unwanted scrutiny, even ridicule; to speak of God or the spirit suitable grounds for involuntary confinement. Qohen, as weird as he initially seems, is the final result of someone who can no longer cope with the speed and intensity of modern life and has withdrawn from the outside world to prevent further injury.

Surely we can sympathize with his stance. How often, these days, do we feel under siege, inundated by a deluge of information and programming too ubiquitous to escape? And who among us hasn’t searched for meaning amidst that turmoil, a whisper of reassurance lost in a whirlwind of change?

ΩΩΩΩ (Out of 5)

Note: “The Zero Theorem” is currently playing at the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon.  

About Cliff Burns

I'm a literary writer, specializing in slipstream/ alternative/surreal/science fiction. My influences include Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, David Cronenberg, Rene Magritte, any artist who defies convention and busts open genres, attacking the status quo.
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