At his best, like in the previous The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Mr. Gilliam can access a strange brew of wonder and strangeness that not many directors can pull off. The Zero Theorem, alas, is not one of his finest films, its intriguing but ultimately underdeveloped plot (written by creative writing professor Pat Rushin) seeming too much of a retread of Brazil, the dark Orwellian cult classic whose production troubles have haunted the director ever since. As Brazil, this is about a low-level company man caught in something that transcends him in such a way it all but threatens to destroy the fabric of reality.
In a retro-futuristic, social-media-immersed London, one-track-minded computer scientist Qoren Leth is assigned by his corporate employer to crack the Zero Theorem, an equation whose successful resolution will show the universe is dominated by chaos, thus proving the futility and pointlessness of human life and the absence of deities. But Leth, a reclusive, misanthropic loner played just this side of psychotic by the great Christoph Waltz, is obsessed with the idea of the existence of a greater power that will make sense of his life, while devoting himself exclusively to an exotic data-crunching that plays far too much like some sort of video-game.
In many ways, The Zero Theorem is Mr. Gilliam's moody equivalent of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, only devoid of the wit to lighten up the darkness and nihilism at its center. Though sparkled with heart, some truly stunning visual ideas and the director's usual throwaway sight details (as well as his in-your-face, grotesque handheld plans), this is also a remarkably vitriolic, savagely angry object, a dense, unlikeable parable of modern society with all its chaos and madness, that only someone with the sheer clout of Mr. Gilliam could pull off.
In effect, there is a method to its madness: Peggy Lee's immortal question, "is that all there is?", is what is at the ultimately lonely centre of The Zero Theorem. It's a question the director entirely refuses to answer, leaving the viewer hanging on.
THE ZERO THEOREM
France, USA, United Kingdom, Romania 2013
Cast Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges
Director Terry Gilliam; screenwriter Pat Rushin; cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (colour); composer George Fenton; designer David Warren; costumes Carlo Poggioli; editor Mick Audsley; visual effects Nick Allder; producers Nicolas Chartier and Dean Zanuck; production companies Voltage Pictures, Asia & Europe Productions and Zanuck Independent Productions in association with Zephyr Films, Mediapro, Le Pacte, Wild Side Films, Picture Perfect Corporation and Film Capital Europe Funds
Screened July 14th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon (distributor press screening)