The Zero Theorem doesn’t add up to much

C+ Dystopian satire

  • Written by Pat Rushin
  • Directed by Terry Gilliam

In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam made three sci-fi/fantasy comedies that stood with the best films of that decade. But his best work is now far behind him. His latest movie, The Zero Theorem, although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, doesn’t really go anywhere.

Quentin Tarantino’s favorite German, Christoph Waltz, stars as a brilliant but reclusive mathematician and computer programmer  sinking into some form of depression. He works mostly at home–trying to solve an impossible problem–while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. That home appears to be an abandoned cathedral

This is one messed-up dude. He refers to himself in the plural ("we" instead of "I"), as if he were the King of England. He insists that he’s dying, even though there’s no reason to believe it’s so. He also believes that someday he’ll receive a phone call which will explain the meaning of his life.


Despite his best efforts to stay alone, other people barge into his life. There’s his boss (David Thewlis), as well as a brilliant teenager assigned to help him (Lucas Hedges). Matt Damon plays the corporation’s ultimate boss. Tilda Swinton does another of her brilliant, chameleon, comic roles as a virtual psychiatrist program.

The very sexy Mélanie Thierry plays the most insistent want-to-be companion. She flirts with him constantly, saves his life once, and seems very eager to have virtual (but not real) sex with him. To what extent she’s acting out of her own desire, and to what extent she’s being paid for the job, is an open question.

The Zero Theorem feels in many ways like a less-effective retreat of Gilliam’s brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior film, it’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Technology–ugly and unreliable–runs everything. One huge bureaucracy rules every aspect of everybody’s life. Only this time, the overwhelming bureaucracy is corporate, not government. The corporation is menacingly named Mancom.

Gilliam fills the picture with imaginative, dazzling, and satiric visuals. In an early scene, a video commercial follows Waltz as he walks through the city. When another man passes him, the commercial changes direction to follow the new target. A party is filled with earbud-wearing guests dancing with their eyes glued to their tablets and smartphones. Every time someone discards a piece of food, a rat comes out of hiding to grab it.

But for all of these visuals, and for all of the fun play with actors like Thewlis, Swinton, and Thierry, The Zero Theorem doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Brazil’s protagonist, who’s caught between an evil government and its literally tortured victims, Theorem’s protagonist has little to complain about. His emotional problems aren’t dealt with deeply enough to be meaningful–or dramatic. And we really can’t care if he solves a mathematical problem that we scarcely understand.

With nowhere to go, the climax and ending disappoint in obvious ways.