Qohen (Christoph Waltz) and Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) in “The Zero Theorem.” | AMPLIFY
By Bruce Ingram/For Sun-Times Media
If you admire the films of Terry Gilliam, the news that “The Zero Theorem” is set in the dystopian future is probably all you need to hear to consider this darkly satiric, existentially queasy sci-fi fantasy a must-see — for good reason.
After all, making the future look terribly dismal in a surreally entertaining sort of way has long been a Gilliam specialty, first in “Brazil” and later in “Twelve Monkeys.” And “Zero Theorem,” which the director has been touting as the third installment in his “Orwellian Triptych,” scores nicely with the same dazzlingly bleak vibe, even though it doesn’t bother to resolve any of the big philosophical issues it bandies about.
Whether or not life has any meaning, for instance. Futuristic corporate drone Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, almost unrecognizable with shaved head and eyebrows) is convinced it does, but he’s waiting for a phone call to explain what it might be. Qohen (pronounced Cohen, though he’s perpetually called Quinn by addled office manager David Thewlis) is withdrawn, isolated and wildly neurotic. He refers to himself with the royal “we,” sleeps in the pipe organ of the converted church where he lives and desperately wishes to work from home, so he won’t miss that call he’s long been irrationally expecting. He’s a genius at crunching numbers, however, so all-powerful Management (Matt Damon) sends him home and puts him to work on the Zero Theorem — a supposedly unsolvable, insanity-inducing equation that would prove everything in the universe adds up to nothing.
Why does Management want to prove that? It’s better not to ask, really, since even he doesn’t have a satisfactory answer when he’s eventually asked to explain. It’s best just to savor the task and the future-tense setting as an opportunity for Gilliam to display his unfettered imagination — beginning with an opening shot of Qohen, nude, floating in space above a rumbling, spiraling, cosmically enormous black hole.
The mood of “Zero Theorem” is brooding and melancholy, but also more overtly comic than “Brazil” or “Twelve Monkeys,” which made generating laughs less of a priority. The satirical script, by debut screenwriter Pat Rushin, is packed with throwaway gags like an ad for the Church of Batman (“Bored with Buddhism? Sick of Scientology?”). And Tilda Swinton does her best to undermine the credibility of psychotherapy as a digital psychiatrist who frequently pops up on Qohen’s computer with unhelpful input.
There’s also an ongoing relationship with a “tantric, bio-telemetric interfacing” online sex worker named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) involving a hooded, full-body virtual-sex suit that makes Qohen look like a randy red elf in a unitard. But Rushin and Gilliam are going for more there, including unlikely romance and the possibility that the true meaning of life will be revealed to be love. Ultimately, though, Gilliam has something much grander, though much vaguer, in store for Qohen. It might not make much sense, when it happens, but it sure looks cool. And for diehard Gilliam fans, that should probably be enough to make “The Zero Theorem” a satisfying proposition.
Amplify presents a film directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Pat Rushin. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for language and some sexuality/nudity). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.