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Everything is Nothing: A review of The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem comes from the masterful mind of ex-Monty Python member Terry Gilliam – but is this enough to save it from its own nihilism?

Released back in March 2014, Gilliam’s latest film The Zero Theorem is the story of one man’s struggle with finding meaning in his life amidst a bright and lurid futuristic world. At points it is hard to follow, at points it is immensely captivating, and at others it is simply frustrating. But it gets bonus points for including the most amazing cover of Radiohead’s Creep, sung by Karen Souza, and for including a slew of characters that would be great fun to cosplay. In all, I enjoyed it.

I may be slightly biased. I am, after all, a massive Gilliam fan, and as a group we are known for giving avid accolades even to the most flawed and critically-controversial of his works (Tideland, I’m looking at you).

Characters are lurid and highly-stylised. Image © joblo.com
Characters are lurid and highly-stylised. Image © joblo.com

The viewer of The Zero Theorem is initially drawn in by the idea of proving this theory that everything in the world adds up to zero, but the film’s focus soon shifts to the implications of this theory for a man who is desperately searching for meaning in his life. Qohen is an interesting lead: he is a stern, bald, middle-aged man who is socially awkward, and not in an attractive or cute way. He’s on the fringes of society in a way that does not fetishise it. And throughout the film, various characters end up interacting with him, performing different archetypal roles to try and draw him out of his mental torment.

There’s a great mix of actors included. German actor Christoph Waltz takes a break from being typecast as various stern Nazi types to play Qohen Leth, and Tilda Swinton and Matt Damon make some entertaining appearances as the digital therapist Dr Shrink-ROM and the elusive Management, respectively. Relatively new actor Lucas Hedges is superb as the tech-savvy teenager who bonds with Qohen as his father-figure, and French actress Mélanie Thierry is a revelation as the energetic party girl Bainsley. Thierry will be little-known to many non-French cinemagoers, but she is worth a watch for how she manages to play a peppy young woman in a non-irritating way.

Gilliam’s visions of terrifying bureaucratic totalitarian societies have been legendary since the release of Brazil in 1985. He has a terrific talent of turning that feeling all adults inevitably encounter when trying to deal with tax or bank problems or missed payments into a futuristic nightmare. And The Zero Theorem does not disappoint in this sense; although the bureaucracy is not the focus of the film, it is certainly something that permeates through into everything that tormented lead character Qohen does. Even something as simple as trying to get time off for medical reasons turns into an administrative circus.

What marks out Gilliam’s latest film compared to all others is its inclusion of current technology. Everyone has a tablet device, people use computers integrated with gamepads and fitness devices like Wii consoles, and digital adverts obtrusively follow people while they are getting on with their daily lives. Even the program Qohen uses to do his work looks suspiciously like Minecraft. It will be hugely familiar to anyone who saw the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’.

The arcade-style workstations of the future. Image © io9
The arcade-style workstations of the future. Image © io9

The outside world is so vibrant, it is like being inundated with Facebook or Pinterest constantly. Bright colours and incessant noise does a great job of allowing us to relate to Qohen: by the time he gets back from work and shuts the door of his home to the constant connections of the outer world, we breathe a deep sigh of relief along with him.

Qohen’s private surroundings are just as intense, but slightly darkened, and with a focus on strong reds and greens that were common in older horror movies. He lives in a rickety old church, and the religious iconography will not be lost on you as you watch. Sunlight refracted through old stained glass shows that, while colour is still present in his home, it is of a very different quality. And as for his inner space, where that dark void of nothingness sucks in shimmering galaxies like glitter being poured down a drain, you again notice that the intensity of colour is not lost, it’s just that it is fantastical, not garish. Those mindscape sequences put me in mind of Aronofsky’s visual masterpiece, The Fountain.

A nice thing about this film is the use of rats. Every so often rats come out of the holes in the walls to feast off Qohen’s leftovers amidst his uncleanliness. But you won’t find the industry-standard KY jelly smeared on these rats  – they are very cute little things, far cleaner than both him and his surroundings. I suspect it is part of Gilliam’s knack of creating empathy for those outcast members of society that are normally reviled in film.

Now on to the main sticking point. Often The Zero Theorem seems to drown in a lack of meaning. After a brilliant and intriguing premise, the plot seems to go nowhere, reveal nothing, say nothing insightful. The ending suffers similarly, being somewhat of a letdown. I won’t reveal anything, but it’s no Hollywood ending.

Qohen and Bob wonder if there's any meaning to be found. We're wondering the same thing.
Qohen and Bob wonder if there’s any meaning to be found. We’re wondering the same thing. Image © giantfreakingrobot.com

It would be easy to criticise The Zero Theorem for this clear denouncement of typical cinema conventions, but in a way this lack of direction merely echoes the film’s focus on existentialism all the more. The Zero Theorem itself is an artefact of the very concept the main character Qohen struggles against.

I do feel that the good points outweigh the bad here, and in all the qualities highlighted above, The Zero Theorem is a good example of a cyberpunk film: exposing the nihilism lurking beneath a high tech, cybernetic society. It is worth watching, but the story might leave you feeling unfulfilled, which is sort of the point.

 

main image © Voltage Pictures

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