The Zero Theorem review

Terry Gilliam’s latest futuristic tale of Kafka-esque dystopian struggle sees a worker drone named Qohen Leth, played by Christoph Waltz, attempt to solve the Zero Theorem. This is a seemingly impossible equation which posits that zero must equal 100%. Even one of Leth’s seniors describes it as a guaranteed burn-out project, something that drives number-crunchers at their data processing company mad, ultimately provoking them all to give up.

But Leth could be different. For one thing thing he appreciates the opportunity to work from home. He’s waiting for a call, after missing an earlier one that he believes would have explained the meaning of life to him. And so he throws himself into the project with little regard for his own wellbeing or sanity.

But Leth is lost. There’s no sign of the call and the Zero Theorem is as difficult to solve as it is worthless. And why, as Qohen points out, would you want to prove that all was for nothing in any case?

The set up is rich subject matter for grand ideas and Gilliam barrels head first into many with almost wanton abandon, but The Zero Theorem has ended up cluttered with just the suggestion of intriguing concepts and questions rather than the interesting exploration any. Qohen, for instance, constantly refers to himself as ‘we’ and not ‘I’, meaning that when he makes statements such as “We are but one in many worker bees” the phrase may at first seem to pack some profundity but, all too often, he’s just dropping cute one-liners.

This is especially frustrating when one considers the depth of Gilliam’s previous work. The unseen ‘management’ that has tasked Leth with solving the Zero Theorem and the oppressively futuristic setting do strongly bring to mind Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, but The Zero Theorem feels too often like a reheated version of that film, and it certainly lacks the majesty and timelessness that Gilliam brought to that project.

Despite the somewhat disappointing lack of deep probing, there is a lot to be found in the costuming, production design and general world-building, all of which is imaginative to the nth degree and Gilliam has again created something of a wondrous place to spend a couple of hours. Even still, he does seem to stumble somewhat with elements of the futurism, his presentation of some well-established concepts – for example internet dating – already seeming oddly out of date.

Distanced from the time in which it has been made and delivered, and with a sincere effort to cast aside the very high expectations that a new Gilliam film brings with it, The Zero Theorem could well look a little rosier but it will, I’m sure, always feel a little unsatisfying.

The Zero Theorem is out in UK cinemas now and will be coming to the US soon by the end of Summer.