Terry Gilliam, director of “12 Monkeys,” “Brazil” and “The Brothers Grimm,” returns to theaters this month with his science fiction film “The Zero Theorem.” Written by Pat Rushin, “The Zero Theorem” follows Qohen (Christoph Waltz, “Django Unchained”), an introverted loner who waits obsessively for the phone call that he hopes will explain the meaning of his life. He is a man that is broken and lost, filled with anxiety, depression and fear. He shaves his head, eats food with no flavor and shuns any type of physical contact.
The majority of the film takes place in Qohen’s home, an old abandon church that was closed due to severe fire damage. Like the monks that occupied the church before him, it is here, in this dark solitude where Qohen feels safe and comfortable. Outside of the church the world is filled with a cacophony of noise, color and a never-ending stream of advertising.
When we first meet Qohen, he is staring at his computer screen, hypnotized by a swirling black hole being displayed on the monitor. The phone next to him rings several times before he is jolted out of his trance and answers it. Disappointment replaces the hope on his face when he realizes that the phone call was not the one he was waiting for. With that, we follow Qohen as he confronts the world outside, clearly traumatized by the simple act of stepping through the front door of his home and into a world that he does not belong.
At work, Qohen gets frequent physical and mental exams to try and convince the company’s doctors and his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis, “Dragonheart”), that working from home would be beneficial for everyone. After another request to telecommute is denied, Qohen is invited to a house party that “Management” (Matt Damon, “The Bourne Identity”) will be attending. While initially reluctant, Qohen decides to attend the party in order to ask Management for the right to work from home.
After arriving at the party, Qohen is overwhelmed by the presence of the party goers and finds a quiet room to hide in. It is there where he first encounters Management and uses the opportunity to plead his case. Management comments that Qohen is crazy and treats him with a cold, callous disinterest. Qohen returns home that night, frustrated that he failed in his attempt.
To his surprise, at work the next day, Qohen is told that he has been approved to work from home on the Zero Theorem, a mysterious project created by Management. Within the project’s guidelines, his assignment is to make zero equal 100%. Both Joby and Bob (Lucas Hedges, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) the IT intern speak ominously of the project, but Qohen jumps at the chance and begins working from home with delight. Obviously, the challenge is not exactly what it appears and Qohen eventually begins to lose his patience and control. Deadlines are never ending, a virtual psychologist constantly interrupts him and the Zero Theorem gets no closer to completion.
After a nervous breakdown in which Qohen’s office equipment is destroyed, Joby shows up, fixes the computer and arranges for Qohen to have other visitors. Qohen’s guests are Bob the IT intern and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry, “Babylon A.D.”), a beautiful woman that seems to understand Qohen and his odd personality quirks. Qohen’s attraction to Bainsley and his burgeoning paternal instincts for Bob begin to chip away at his defenses, exposing his past and the reason for his social anxiety. Eventually the stress of the Zero Theorem and the discovery of the project’s real purpose lead to Qohen’s view of the world being torn asunder.
“The Zero Theorem” is funny; however, it is not a comedy. While there are many comedic beats surrounding Qohen throughout the story, those moments are mostly meant to humanize the curmudgeonly recluse and make us care for him in surprising ways. Gilliam masterfully uses the futuristic setting to tell a story about the perils of the world we currently live in and awareness of our own inadequacies we face as we grow older. The science fiction backdrop is mere set dressing for a poignant and oftentimes tragic story about one man’s desire to have his life make sense, only to continually miss the chance to take hold of his own destiny. In the spectrum of Terry Gilliam’s cinematic career, “The Zero Theorem” is one of his most beautifully constructed films. It fits neatly into the puzzle he has created, complimenting both “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys” brilliantly. Not everyone will understand the film’s message, but those who do will carry the “The Zero Theorem” in their heart for a long time.
“The Zero Theorem” debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013 and is currently available to watch online through Vimeo and Itunes. It will also receive a limited theatrical run on Sept. 19, 2014. Please visit The Plaza’s website for information about show times in Atlanta.
To read Target Audience Magazine’s interview with Terry Gilliam from Dragon Con 2014, click here.
To learn more about Dragon Con, please visit Dragon Con’s website.
For more information on the film, visit http://www.zerotheoremfilm.com/.