The Zero Theorem

Ashley Clark,

We’re in some semi-recognisable dystopia of the near-future. The people, they aren’t happy. They’re automatons, adrift in a fug of faceless bureaucracy. There’s a bunch of British character actors milling around, hamming it up a bit, but, hey, they’re not so bad. There’s this one guy: an antsy, outsider type; a button-pusher. He’s a cog in the big machine, and he hasn’t really got any friends to speak of. But there’s a mysterious woman, see, and she might be the one to lift him from his funk. Is she a figment of his fevered imagination? And will our harried rat escape his cage and transcend the system’s Orwellian strictures? If you’ve seen Terry Gilliam’s classic film Brazil (1985) you’ll know the answer, and you’ll know the film I’ve been describing. It just so happens that with The Zero Theorem, Gilliam, working from a script by Pat Rushin, has opted to make almost exactly the same film again. Sadly, it’s a serious case of diminishing returns.

Stepping into the jittery automaton’s shoes once filled by Jonathan Pryce is Christoph Waltz, shinily hairless and black-clad as computer genius Leth Qohen. Under the instructions of a sinister figure known only as "Management", Qohen works to solve the titular conundrum – a mathematical formula which will finally determine the meaning of life (if there is indeed one). The Zero Theorem attempts only half-heartedly to bring things up to date from Brazil, conjuring some weirdly '90s-style computer graphic effects (UK viewers might be thinking of a certain Gamesmaster), a couple of lame jabs at corporate soullessness, and, in the form of online sex star Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a cack-handed rabbit stab at satirising the impersonal online transactionality of our modern age. But this kind of approach doesn’t hold much water if you don’t write your female lead a proper character or give her anything else to do but look sexy (or sad) in a selection of rubber outfits. In this case particularly, the film suffers in comparison with Brazil, whose heroine, played by Kim Griest, was a fiercely independent character with real agency.

Even though it remains dramatically flat and airlessly unengaging for almost the entirety of its duration, The Zero Theorem is not a complete bust. There are a handful of amusing discursions from the main narrative, while the production design and costumes are consistently imaginative and colourful, suggesting that some real thought went into the creation of this parallel future. And, as the distressed, otherworldly Qohen, Waltz delivers a committed performance brimming with physical energy; he wrings emotion and pathos from even the script’s most uninspired banal techno-waffle. He’s in nearly every scene, but is ultimately powerless to stop The Zero Theorem from being anything other than a drab facsimile of a much better film.

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