– By David Morgan-Brown
Amidst the array of sci-fi dystopian blockbusters that are filling up multiplexes, there’s this smaller, but more concentrated depiction of an apocalyptic near-future from the brilliantly chaotic mind of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam, who created one of cinemas’ greatest futuristic dystopias with Brazil. His new film The Zero Theorem draws enough comparisons to his magnum opus to be relevant, yet not enough to be too reiterative.
The storyline is deceptively simple: Qohen (a hairless Christoph Waltz) has been given time to work from home to solve a mathematical puzzle that will prove that all existence is meaningless. To pad out this small plotline, he is assisted by a variety of characters, including Bob (Lucas Hedges), a young computer prodigy that almost outshines the smarts of Qohen despite being less than half his age. There’s Joby (David Thewlis) as Qohen’s oblivious supervisor, whose electric and crackly dialogue makes him sound most enthusiastic to discover the meaningless of life. Qohen is also stalked by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) who goes to show how far feminism has dropped in the future – although other films may throw in an empty, air-headed female side-character to simply act as the love interest, Bainsley shows initially to be a parody of such a trope and is developed throughout the film more as a complete character.
However, it’s the smaller cameos that feel less integral to the plot and seem to only assist in further developing this strange, kooky world. Dr Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton) is a psychiatrist AI that causes more psychological problems for Qohen than she solves, and Management (Matt Damon) who looms chameleon-like over Qohen’s work-life. Yet these small characters feel more like interruptions to the story that add a stop-start feeling to the film’s pacing, but they are at least entertaining bit parts played by wonderful actors.
Of course, I must give mention to Christoph Waltz, an actor who shifts between mainstream and alternative cinema, but I think plays better in the latter. His performance as Qohen is so ridiculously inward, gloomy, and misanthropic – but in a fun sort of way. He’s active in his task at hand and cooperates with the other characters, yet what he perhaps really wants is true isolation, and his constant over-surveillance causes a seething frustration that Waltz sells terrifically, making it both relatable and infectious to those prone to technophobic panic attacks.
I’m sure for budget’s sake, there is only one scene early on in the film that lathers on the visual effects to create this horrific futuristic setting, but it gets the job done by portraying the world that our paranoid, introverted main character inhabits as a commercially-driven, visually overwrought, and overwhelmingly electronic society that may indeed be meaningless. The film keeps up this futuristic setting throughout its entirety, the closed-in claustrophobic sets (and the industrial electronic wizardry that permeates them), the fashionably offensive costumes, the quirky demeanour of side characters and extras. All of this gives more than enough reason for Qohen’s anxiety and just about makes him the only relatable character in the film – even the fantasy sequences he visits on the internet look more sterile and fake than the real life settings.
In our modern times where the abundance of technology is praised, antagonised, and sometimes both, movies have of course reflected this trend especially in sci-fi films where the main theme is its utilisation and overdependence. The Zero Theorem fits right in to this sub-genre as a solid and original low-budget sci-fi film, perfectly suited to those who can never be alone in this always-connected world.