Set in a nondescript country in the near future, The Zero Theorem focuses on Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a man lacking both hair and individuality. Leth refers to himself in the plural—always “we,” never “I”—and “they” like to be left alone.
Leth is an Entity Cruncher—he works with esoteric data—for ManCom, an all-seeing overlord company that either does everything or nothing. Leth is one of their top crunchers and is given the special assignment: prove the zero theorem. The zero theorem is a formula where zero must equal 100%, or as his wunderkind assistant, Bob (Lucas Hedges), jokes, his job is to prove that everything adds up to nothing.
Making Leth the man responsible for this task is one of several cosmic jokes in Zero Theorem. Leth is a man of faith, possibly the only one left. He lives a monastic life in an abandoned church where he waits endlessly for a phone call. The omniscient caller called once before and promised to reveal the purpose of life, but in his excitement, Leth dropped the receiver, and the connection was lost. Now, Leth waits day and night for the caller to return and illuminate his purpose.
But Leth’s wait for meaning while being forced to disprove it is not the only thing Zero Theorem is about, not by a long shot. Gilliam chocks his movie full of ideas and dystopian eventualities, each one acting like a tick off the post-apocalyptic checklist: lack of human interaction, constant surveillance from Big Brother, disconnection between the personal, the accessibility of internet pornography, virtual reality, and so on.
Herein lies the problem with Zero Theorem: it is too rambunctious to sit still and focus on any one thing. Zero Theorem is full of ideas, but most remain undigested by the end of the run time. A shame considering that a vast majority of the really interesting ones are left by the wayside: ideas like relentless advertisements that pursue customers as they walk down the streets, the constant cacophony of noise that accompanies every aspect of our lives, the obsession with multitasking and how that drives us further away from people and common experience. Those three get right at the heart of where our culture is headed, and maybe Gilliam takes that for granted. Instead, Zero Theorem—like most artistic endeavors—is about man’s obsessive search for the concept of design. Leth will not rest until the second calling, but his desire to know the purpose of his life has caused him to miss out on the experience.
The Zero Theorem (2013)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Pat Rushin with additional dialogue by Terry Gilliam
Produced by Nicolas Chartier, Dean Zanuck
Starring: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton
Stage 6 Films, Rated R, Running time 107 minutes, Opened Aug. 19, 2014.