The Zero Theorem

Soon after the cinematic release of Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk I was travelling on a train down through middle England and I sat beside a passenger who was watching a low quality pirated version of the film on a poorly illuminated, teeny tiny notebook. “Ah yes,” I thought, “exactly as the director intended”. As the small screen fell in and out of focus I knew that somewhere Christopher Nolan was proud he shot the movie specially on IMAX 70 mm film for it to be watched on a roughly 70 mm screen. Some films deserve the big screen cinema experience in order to do them justice.

I watched The Zero Theorem on my iPhone, streaming from Netflix, on the train to Glasgow. Justice was served, the film deserved no better.

While it is sometimes a downside to see the progress slider when watching a film on Netflix, here it was a benefit. I was over half way through the film and I was waiting for it to start. By the end I knew this was one of the worst Terry Gilliam films I’ve seen. Which is sad because the visuals and cast make it look like a good Terry Gilliam film.

I think the movie was about Qohen (bald Christoph Waltz) a computer administrator who crunches entities ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) and wants to work from home. He is tasked with analysing the Zero Theorem which is something about how everything adds up to nothing and life is meaningless, I think. He spends most of the film in existential angst waiting for a phone call that will give his life meaning. He’s “quirky”. He befriends an internet cam girl. He lives in a dilapidated cathedral full of Terry Gilliam film props and tangled fairy lights. What else… Oh it’s set in the dystopian future which is to say a decidedly old fashioned view of a future which amounts to more CCTV cameras and obnoxious augmented reality obnoxious advertising. Pffff what else… Matt Damon wears a zebra suit and achieves his laziest performance to date as The Management, who is kind of an antagonist but not really.

IMDb’s attempt at a plot synopsis is equally thin: “A hugely talented but socially isolated computer operator is tasked by Management to prove the Zero Theorem: that the universe ends as nothing, rendering life meaningless. But meaning is what he already craves.”

There isn’t really a plot which is the film’s main problem. It takes ages for Qohen’s real goal to be revealed and when it finally comes two-thirds into the film I was already bored by his existential bullshit. I didn’t care what he wanted because I didn’t care about him. I wasn’t interested in seeing what happens because nothing really happens. The following youtube clip “3 Mistakes Screenwriters Make In Act 1 That Ruin A Screenplay by Michael Hauge” is effectively a standalone review of The Zero Theorem.

The movie has nothing to say. The characters have nothing to do. The script is riddled with shallow psychobabble that sounds deep to maybe edgy teenagers, I guess:

Qohen Leth: Nothing adds up.
Joby: No. You’ve got it backwards, Qohen. Everything adds up to nothing, that’s the point.
Qohen Leth: What’s the point?
Joby: Exactly. What’s the point of anything?

It’s a shame really. Terry Gilliam being all Terry Gilliam should be my cup of tea. This ends up being my second biggest issue with the film. It’s all recycled content from his filmography. Christop Waltz with a shaved head is an upcycled Bruce Willis from Twelve Monkeys. The dystopian bureaucracy was found in the bins behind Brazil. The comedic banter, what little there is, was salvaged from off cuts from Monty Python sketches.

If the trailer for Gilliam’s upcoming and much fabled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote didn’t look fantastic I’d say he had lost his touch in his old age. Where The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is the film he’s been destined to make, The Zero Theorem is the film he made when he was out of ideas