The Zero Theorem is a bit dated in much of its cultural critique, but there is one central thing the movie gets right, and right on time: our increasing inability to give our full attention to one, singular activity. Multitasking is the dominant way of life, and it’s slicing us up like a paper shredder.
“Don’t ask – multitask!” That’s one of the many onscreen directives blaring at Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a number cruncher at an enigmatic tech company called Mancom. Actually, Leth prefers to say “we crunch entities,” in order to distinguish himself from the accounting rabble. Yet all we see him do is pound away at various devices, respond to onscreen queries and answer insistent telephone calls – all while manipulating some sort of animated, digital cube environment that looks like a cross between pre-calculus and Minecraft. If you didn’t know The Zero Theorem was a Terry Gilliam film by now, this is your clue: with its frantically inventive production design, distracting visual gags and Dutch angles emphasizing the sense of disorientation, the movie essentially negates the very sort of serenity that Leth seeks.
Leth finds some respite by walling himself off from the rest of the world in the foreclosed-upon church he calls home. After successfully petitioning Management (Matt Damon), Leth is given permission to work from his secluded enclave – but only if he agrees to accept the task of proving the “zero theorem.” And so he obsessively grinds away, hardly leaving his home screen, all while the merciless computer continually rejects his findings and bleats, “Zero must equal 100 percent!” Or, as a wunderkind assistant (Lucas Hedges) cheerfully explains, “You’re trying to prove the universe is all for nothing.”
The movie essentially negates the very sort of serenity that Leth seeks.
This comic flirtation with nihilism is a common thread in Gilliam’s pictures; on that score, The Zero Theorem might be one of his darkest (the screenplay is by Pat Rushin). It isn’t only that Leth’s goal is to prove meaninglessness. It’s that attempting to achieve this (meaningless) goal is killing him. Along the way, there are diversionary jokes involving society’s obsession with screens, virtual sex and artificially intelligent psychiatry (Tilda Swinton has a small role as a digital therapist). Yet for all its funhouse lunacy, the movie is headed toward a literal (OK, digital) black hole, wherein Leth is reduced to yet another of Gilliam’s jester idiots, grinning in a world without meaning.
Waltz has the right persona for the part. He’s an actor of fidgety intelligence, even when his characters are supremely in control (Inglourious Basterds). And here his whirring mind gives in to all sorts of gestural urges. Leth scampers around his sanctuary in a panic and plunks away at keys and screens as if his very life depended on it. He’s split his concentration so many ways that he even refers to himself as “we.” As in, “At present, we feel no joy.”
Leth says this because joy is considered inefficient, at least in this maniacal world. It’s a waste of time and energy. Similarly, Leth’s assistant, named Bob, calls everyone else Bob because he doesn’t want to spend brain cells on remembering individual names. The Zero Theorem wonders if we’re headed toward a world in which efficiency is valued above all else – at the expense of relationships, art, even meaning. Perhaps we are, yet as long as there are unruly movies like this around, we’ll be able to prove that theory wrong.