Review: The Zero Theorem / Cert: 15 / Director: Terry Gilliam / Screenplay: Pat Rushin / Starring: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton / Release Date: March 14th
The meaning of life, the universe and everything is not, in fact, 42 as Douglas Adams once suggested. Actually, it all means nothing. Zilch. Nada. Zero. That's the theory director Terry Gilliam is going with in his latest foray into science fiction dystopia land with The Zero Theorem.
Christoph Waltz is Qohen Leth, a bald man who refers to himself in the plural and insists that he is dying due to his hair loss and crumbling mental state. Living in a dilapidated old church to block out the bright, frantic, noisy world of the future, Leth is a miserable number-cruncher determined to convince Management (Matt Damon) to let him work at home due to his health problems. When he is granted his disability request and given the task of solving the elusive zero theorem from home, Management sends in lusty call girl Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and teenage whizz kid Bob (Lucas Hedges) to help stop him from disappearing down into a black hole of despair.
Terry Gilliam, it seems, thinks little of the future, little of the state of human existence and little of what makes your average cinema goer happy. There is next to nothing here that will satisfy mainstream audiences but plenty to get your grey matter wrapped around if you are looking for something a little more substantial, if utterly quizzical. Oddly for a film about the meaning of nothing, The Zero Theorem is rich with detail and could in fact be about everything. Love, life, sex, death, religion, technology, existence, creation and control; it's all here in a deceptively simple set up.
Though The Zero Theorem rarely leaves Leth's ramshackle old church and Waltz is barely off screen, it is about more than just a man waiting for the phone to ring. The deluded Leth is a workaholic waiting for someone to give meaning to his life. When his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) invites him to parties, he hides away from the other guests. When Bainsley comes into his life, he cannot connect with her until it becomes a virtual relationship. Only the teenage Bob can help Leth understand his futile search for meaning and recognise the things in life that might actually be worth working for.
When Leth does go outside however, it is easy to see why he wishes to stay indoors. The future of The Zero Theorem is a loud, impersonal, hectic nightmare of bright colours, invasive advertising and people glued to their personal hand-held devices Management watches over everything, with CCTV cameras constantly recording, and advances in technology have only made life and work ever harder to separate.
Gilliam uses visual effects wonderfully, with detailed production design making The Zero Theorem a film you could immediately watch again. The sets, locations, costumes and props are all lovingly created, even if they sometimes look as though Gilliam's vision of the future has not moved on since he made Brazil almost 30 years ago. However, Waltz and Melanie Thierry wield real emotional heft, so that the style is almost matched by the substance. Waltz in particular is utterly convincing as Leth, his long face and often naked body complementing a master class performance in misery. Thierry will get a lot of attention for her array of outstandingly sexy costumes but fortunately the heart, soul and sweetness of Bainsley is eventually given time to emerge from beneath the bubbly sex kitten exterior.
The Zero Theorem is Gilliam clearly in his comfort zone. It is deliberately and confidently weird and wacky. For anyone who has questioned the meaning of existence, staring out into a black void and realising that all human life is essentially meaningless, you will be sure to find a kindred spirit in Leth. The fact that The Zero Theorem also finds humour and heart in its story of soul-sucking emptiness just shows what a wonderful filmmaker Gilliam can be.
Expected Rating: 8 out of 10