One memorable scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory involves Wonka and his guests on a boat that keeps going and going through a terrifying tunnel as the walls rush past, faster and faster. It’s a brief moment of nightmare that’s made bearable by the knowledge that a candy paradise is at either end. In the Zero Theorem, it’s as if the world has turned into that tunnel, a nightmarish mystery in a world shrouded by bright colors and glamour, yet there is no chocolate river. Or at least there isn’t for Qohen, played by Christoph Waltz.
Qohen Leth is a reclusive computer genius, troubled by the question that troubles us all: what is the meaning of life? His mind leads him to believe that meaning is going to be revealed through a phone call, so he requests to work from home so he won’t miss the call. His company’s management (aptly called Management) obliges, allowing him to work from home as long as he works on the Zero Theorem, a theorem so difficult that it’s driven many quality provers mad.
But that should be alright, because Qohen is already rather mad. Different from your typical cinematic crazy, Qohen knows that he’s not quite right. He prefers to avoid physical contact, refers to himself as “we”, and knows that is all not quite right. And it isn’t as if he’s blissful about it either. He seems like a pretty miserable dude, despite the bright colors of the world around him.
If there’s one thing I almost always enjoy about Terry Gilliam’s films, it’s the way he contrasts visuals, running the full spectrum in the process. As you can see in the pictures on this page, there are aspects of the world that are retina-burning. But then you get in Qohen’s home/abandoned monastery and things are bleak beyond belief. I hate to make comparisons to directors other works, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Fisher King. Except, in The Fisher King, it’s the insanity of the mind that leads bright colors, and at times, bliss. The real world is a bleak place. In The Zero Theorem, it’s the opposite. Qohen could live in the blissful world, but instead he lives in the dark realms of his own choosing.
Waltz is absolutely spot-on in his performance, though, at this point, it’d be silly to expect anything else. The one time I momentarily felt like his acting wasn’t up to snuff is when he’s in the virtual world as a normal, hair-headed man. Then I realized that he was just playing a normal guy. That’s how good his acting is as the paranoid Qohen, when he acts more normal than that, it feels off.
Beyond Qohen, the other characters seem like mere shells or devices instead of real people. I’m not sure whether that’s a purposeful technique, but even if so, I’m not a fan. The characters feel empty and thus the performances feel empty, spare Lucas Hedges as Bob. But Bob has a lot more depth than the rest of the characters, so he’s got much more to work with.
I don’t think The Zero Theorem is meant to be a cautionary tale in any way. Gilliam doesn’t seem to be predicting where we’re headed as much as he seems to be having a laugh at the way we’re getting there. And it’s that approach which makes this feel fresher than some other dreary, dystopic film might be. Really, I’m not actually comfortable calling the world of this movie a dystopia. It’s not a bad future, it’s just bad for this one dude.
Oh, and Matt Damon is awesome as Management. I would’ve been fine with three hours of him wearing patterned suits.