The latest film from Terry Gilliam is entirely autorepresentative even if one was initially unaware he was at the helm, set as it is in a dystopian Blade Runner-esque future on Earth and replete with the sort of cynical corporate outlook and the many imaginative, varied and urban physical props that consistently appear in his work, ‘Brazil’ (85) and ’12 Monkeys’ (95) in particular, and also his sense of humour (we see posters reading ‘The church of Batman the Redeemer needs You!’). Here, the story focuses on a social outsider, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who lives alone in an abandoned church in the heart of town, and the film opens with him begging the management at his work (some kind of mass processing plant of intellectual/virtual goods) to allow him to work from home which, he argues, would be much more productive for the company as there would be no time lost in transit etc. and he would prefer it as he wouldn’t have to be surrounded by people he doesn’t want anything to do with. At least, that is the assumption as we see him suffer great difficulty under normal social conditions and continually use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ in conversation. The head of the company (Matt Damon, who last worked with Gilliam on ‘The Brothers Grimm’ 05) comes to the conclusion that he is borderline insane and so consents to his wish, so long as he works on ‘The Zero Theorem’, a project which is notorious for driving people bonkers and so he figures Qohen has nothing to lose anyway.
The opening third of the film is a little too ungrounded to work properly – we see Qohen at a party, for example, where the socialites there are dressed in what passes for fashionable garb, each holding modern tablets while they dance as if they’re sending out some social signal trending in the future, whether it be simply an alternative statement or some kind of status symbol, relationship or otherwise, we don’t know, and that’s the problem – it’s too loose, an attempted commentary on the dominance of technology and perhaps social media in our lives at the expense of human interaction, but it’s too vague to have any real meaning.
Eventually though, the film settles and finds more resonance with modernity and physics, in particular the ‘big crunch’ theory which would see the universe eventually contract and end with the opposite of a big bang (the universe is currently expanding, but different, conflicting ideas about its future abound). Qohen, we learn, has been waiting all his life for the one call that will explain the meaning of his life to him, but is ironically forced to work obsessively on the imposed Zero Theorem, which attempts to prove that the sum total of everything, all knowledge, matter and experience, amounts to absolutely and figuratively nothing, and thus everything is pointless.
As we watch him work at his computer we see him trying to fit endless arrays of boxes with formulae written on them into structures comprised of many such boxes – when he puts the right one into the right place he ‘solves’ that part, bringing order to chaos, but when he makes a mistake entropy ensues and that structure collapses, causing much mental anguish to the would be mathematician, compounded by his exponentially increasing workload, all of which threatens his already dubious mental stability.
Interestingly, this could be read in a number of ways. It will certainly seem familiar to the many programmers out there who work under such infuriating circumstance all the time, but there is also a connection to the modern rise of ultra cynical computer games, usually found online or available as apps, that are designed with the sole purpose of tying people into them, forcing them to invest more and more of, not just their time, but also their money into the game and for no real gain in terms of enjoyment or any satisfaction to be gleamed from the gameplay, simply to keep consumers using their product as much as possible. The ‘grind’ as gamers will often refer to some instances of this phenomenon. All of these games are a complete waste of time, and the creator’s main job is to dress it up as something rewarding so that you don’t realise just how bad it is until you’ve already been playing for a while, and they quite often target a younger market that are easier to hook. At the same time, it also has echoes of the drive in modern physics to search for a ‘unified theory’ of everything, as currently two of our major understandings of the universe, namely relativity and quantum theory, do not match up with one another, meaning something is wrong with at least one of them somewhere.
Thus, the film becomes more relevant and more interesting as it progresses. Matt Damon hires a digital prostitute Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) to keep Qohen interested in the project, presumably also to relieve some of his pent up rage, but the two develop real feelings for one another, throwing the unstable variables of love and desire into the equation. Here too the science fiction aspect really works, as Bainsley explains she doesn’t actually engage in any physical intercourse because it isn’t safe but focuses instead on the cerebral, and eventually we see the pair of them connect themselves to the internet where they can experience the real thing in virtual reality – something which could become available in the not too distant future with current technology able to ‘read thoughts’ (electrical impulses, see below) and deliver an element of tactile sensation, and with experiments to link this to cybersex and the adult entertainment industry being conducted by various interested parties.
A delightfully dark and yet hopeful film in some ways, as we at least see Qohen’s passion for something compel him to strive ever forward, all counterbalanced by the warmth Bainsley provides, and so long as you can live with its flirtation with whimsy, there are a lot of nice touches to appreciate too. Well acted throughout, also with David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton and Lucas Hedges in support.