Shot on a dime, Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is a dense sci-fi fantasy/allegory that fills the screen with so much stuff — so many ideas and symbols and story elements and suggested pathways — that it winds up feeling claustrophobic. This happens sometimes with Gilliam: The greater his budgetary and narrative limitations, the more his imagination wants to cram in there, and sometimes his films threaten to break under the weight of all those fevered obsessions. The Zero Theorem, however, doesn’t break. It starts off as a mess, yes, but eventually finds itself in a very poignant place. Even a lesser Terry Gilliam film is usually more engaging and invigorating than most of the other movies out there.
Here’s the (crazy, heavily symbolic, dreamlike) plot: Living in a huge, rambling church, an introverted computer wiz named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) spends all his time working on programming and troubleshooting for a vast, all-powerful bureaucracy named ManCom in a dystopian London that’s littered with colorful garbage and personalized, high-tech marketing. (In the few exterior shots we see, the city looks like a cross between Children of Men, Brazil, Demolition Man, and Idiocracy.) In order to do his job, Qohen has to pedal a stationary bicycle while working a joystick, moving animated blocks around on computer screens featuring endless stretches of numerical structures that combine and collapse to form mathematical equations that are also, apparently, philosophical conundrums. (Phew.) Meanwhile, somewhat related to his work, he waits for a phone call that will reveal to him the Meaning of Life. (Double phew.)
Enlisted by his boss (Matt Damon, who wears zebra-patterned suits as he sits in zebra-patterned chairs, because he is his environment) to solve an all-encompassing, mysterious problem called “The Zero Theorem,” Qohen finds himself in therapy with an artificially intelligent shrink program (played by Tilda Swinton, who appears to have saved her Snowpiercer look) while also becoming friends with a young, free-spirited programmer named Bob (Lucas Hedges), who happens to be the boss’s son. But most important among his new visitors is Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a beautiful young woman he meets at a party (she saves him from choking on an olive, because people in Terry Gilliam movies don’t just “meet at parties”). Soon, Bainsley and Qohen strike up a virtual-reality relationship in which they both don VR suits, plug in, and find themselves relaxing half-naked on an idyllic beach.
Got all that? No? I’d say don’t worry, because Terry Gilliam films are not usually overly concerned with plot. Except that one does feel quite lost and rudderless in the first half of the film, as Gilliam throws so much narrative information at us that we can’t tell what’s important and what’s not. He’s got a lot to say, dammit — about social media, about the surveillance state, about bureaucracy, about corporate yes-man culture, about our gradual isolation from one another, about our search for meaning in a meaningless universe, about our search for perfection in an imperfect universe … I’ve seen the film twice so far, and I’m still not done teasing out everything he’s packed in there.
Of course, a lot of these are themes Gilliam wove together in his masterpiece Brazil, which Zero Theorem resembles in its broad strokes. There, too, we had a cog in a massive dystopian bureaucracy who sought an idyllic vision of love while trying to detach himself from the machine. But Brazil, for all the horror of its ending, felt more hopeful: Heroism and love, even of the most futile and self-destructive kind, was possible in that world. Zero Theorem, on the other hand, shows the director’s growing despair. If the currency of Brazil’s universe was conformity, here it’s isolation and our willingness to withdraw and live in our own heads. That makes us, at least in this world, complicit in our own enslavement. To put it another way: If in Gilliam’s past films, the machine could pound us into dust, now it no longer needs to. We’re doing its dirty work for it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go post my movie review on my Facebook page.