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'Zero Theorem' Doesn't Quite Add Up

More questions than answers in Terry Gilliam's sci-fi head-scratcher
Dan Gentile, 3:04pm, Fri. Sep. 27, 2013

Terry Gilliam's no stranger to asking life's big questions.

He's tackled Big Brother in Brazil, confronted the concepts of memory in Twelve Monkeys, and searched for the meaning of life in … The Meaning of Life. But despite his immense imagination, Gilliam's latest dystopian sci-fi parable Zero Theorem offers little in the way of illumination, and throughout most of the film, it feels like he's just stumbling in the dark.

Making its American debut as the closing film of this year's Fantastic Fest, Zero Theorem was prefaced with a rousing endorsement by festival curator and Ain't It Cool kid Harry Knowles. He recounted his first, second, and third watching experiences – an all-night affair that began with a sense of confusion and ended at 6am with cathartic tears. Once the lights dimmed, the introduction continued with a video of Gilliam himself delivering a clever ramble about the film's grandiose intentions and a winking thank you to Harry for a shining advance review.

The film opens on Christoph Waltz as the humorless Qohen, a bald computer programmer living ascetically in a derelict chapel filled with computer hardware. His walk to work is plagued by a landscape of relentless ads that showcase Gilliam's perchant for dystopian details (“Join the Church of Batman the Redeemer!”). When Qohen arrives at his office, he grabs a joystick and begins “entity-crushing” an endless string of mathematical equations represented visually as a cross between Tetris and Minecraft. Always speaking in the first person plural, he begs that “we” be allowed to work at home for fear of missing a mysterious phone call that will illuminate his purpose in life.

The Management, played by Matt Damon in an inexplicably zebra-striped suit, grants Qohen's request on the condition that he work on the hardest problem the company has ever faced: the zero theorem. Throughout the rest of the film, Qohen struggles against solving this meaning of life equation and in the process confronts his own joylessness with a little help from a computerized shrink and the scantily clad Bainsley, a company-employed call girl played with a nymphish charm by French actress Mélanie Thierry. After a virtual world affair with Bainsley, Qohen heads to the depths of the existential rabbit hole and maybe destroys the universe in the process.

It sounds like a premise ripe for an imaginative treatment, but unfortunately the film buckles under its own weight. Waltz delivers his best blank-faced John Malkovich impression, but the deadpan dialogue never gives the character room to breathe. The sets occasionally twinkle with creativity, but most often the details are overwhelmed by shadows and grainy film quality. Qohen's paranoid dialogue and his company's cryptic directives are at times intriguing, but the double-speak frustratingly snowballs with no regard for plot exposition.

By the time the movie reaches the world-shattering reveal, the climax feels like more of a whimper than a bang. Repeated viewings might help untangle the story and reveal the subtleties of Waltz's performance (which Knowles deemed Oscar-worthy), but it's questionable how many viewers will be compelled to revisit Zero Theorem when there are so many other windows into Gilliam's imagination.

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