Terry Gilliam makes big movies. At a moment in cinematic history when most movies have Lilliputian ambitions, whether their budgets are $500 or $500 million Gilliam still wants to work on a large canvas and take on the big questions.
At this point in his career, it often seems like Gilliam is being forced to compete against his younger self. It is undeniable that he has set the bar high with a resume that stretches from his groundbreaking animation for Monty Python to acclaimed classics like Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Fisher King. However, if a younger filmmaker made a movie with the wit, style and subversive panache of The Zero Theorem, critics would be showering him or her with accolades.
With The Zero Theorem, Gilliam offers fascinating new perspectives on some of his favorite themes, like the struggle of the individual in an increasingly repressive society, the dream of love and the deceptive power of the media, all set in a comically dystopian future that could only be conjured by this unique filmmaker.
Qohen Leth (Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) is a brilliant computer programmer who has spent his life waiting for a phone call. After being disconnected during a mysterious call that he believed would reveal the meaning of life, Leth has eagerly been awaiting a call back. In the meantime, he’s been working for the monumental corporate conglomerate Mancom. His already crazy life begins to spin even more out of control when he is personally selected by Mancom’s elusive leader, Management (Matt Damon), to solve the seemingly unsolvable Zero Theorem.
Almost immediately upon accepting this assignment, Leth’s carefully constructed solitude is breached by a series of eccentric visitors including Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a sensuous cyber-sex worker; Bob (Lucas Hedges), Management’s computer geek son; Leth’s brain-damaged supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis); and Doctor Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), a computer-generated therapist. Are these characters really there to help or are they just part of Mancom’s greedy scheme to reduce everything to the nothingness embodied by the black hole that haunts Leth’s dreams?
Gilliam has often pitted individual romantic heroism against a society devolving into Orwellian nightmares. In recent years, the heroics have seemed ever more futile while the societies his protagonists live in have become steadily more oppressive. When the heroes of Brazil or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen slipped into a fantasy world, it felt like a genuinely rebellious act, but Leth’s similar escape from reality seems nothing but desperate. Gilliam’s quixotic rage against a modern consumerist society reducing every human emotion to an impulse to buy has reached a fever pitch that becomes almost unbearable at times. Fortunately, Gilliam’s wickedly mischievous sense of humor remains undiminished and as satirically cutting as ever. The Zero Theorem may be more scattershot than Gilliam’s best movies, but the film’s passion and comic brilliance reveal him to be an aging cinematic lion who has not lost his roar or his willingness to keep fighting the good fight.