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Technology isolates us, making virtual relationships more appealing and convenient than real ones. Technology bombards us, first overstimulating and then zombifying our brains with its addictive, 24/7 lure. We buy things because inescapable advertising says we need to, and waste most of our earthly jaunt clocking in and out of soul-sucking jobs so we can buy those things. And then we wait and wait for some intangible to fill the void. When [blank] happens, then I’ll be happy.
These aren’t the most profound observations about the zeitgeist, and they’re hardly novel. Yet this is the depth of what’s offered by Terry Gilliam—who stands acclaimed for his biting social commentary in 1985’s Brazil—in The Zero Theorem, a muddled work that invites you to think about little except the other works recalled by its dystopian setting. Wall*E, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Elysium, The Maze Runner. Hell, four of those—or at least chapters of them—are 2014 releases. Pessimistic futurism: It’s all the rage!
The look of Zero Theorem, written not by Gilliam but first-timer Pat Rushin, most closely recalls the world of Katniss Everdeen, though Katniss would bust an arrow in Qohen Leth’s ass after a few minutes in his passive, jumpy presence. Leth (a hairless Christoph Waltz) is an “entity cruncher” at a massive corporation whose sole mission appears to be keeping the citizenship busy. The company, and apparently every other aspect of its workers’ non-lives, is controlled by Management (Matt Damon), and…do I really have to go on? Well, in this iteration of the very familiar setup, Leth is a socially anxious loner who wants to please, but also wants to work at home because he’s expecting a call that will tell him why he exists. (Bonus: Telecommuting is much more efficient.)
When Leth—whom his garrulous, Harry Potter–esque boss, Joby (Harry Potter’s David Thewlis), calls “Quinn”—steps out of his dreary, cavernous monastery-turned-home, the streets are bustling and bleak, with billboards whose spoken pitches converge into an overbearing cacophony and a population that decorates itself cartoonishly. It’s Times Square via the Capitol of The Hunger Games, sharing Gilliam’s own The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’ discomfiting whimsy.
Management does grant Leth his request to work from home, but only to—well, the reason is unclear. He’s given a futile project to tackle, which has Leth using a video game controller to solve an equation via, it seems, Rubik’s Cube Tetris Calculus. As Leth metaphorically tears his hair out over repeated failures, Management sends a wiseass teenager (Lucas Hedges, doing wiseass teenager quite well) and a voluptuous sex worker (Melanie Thierry, doing voluptuous sex worker quite well) to distract him. Leth’s also given a virtual therapist (Tilda Swinton, whose triangle hair and rabbit teeth make her the most entertaining character here); Tree of Life-like, scenes of a black hole frequently appear. Again, the reason for all this is unclear.
Leth hates to be touched and is as rattleable as a rabbit, but his oddest affect is speaking in the third person; i.e. “Excuse us?” instead of “Excuse me?” The script eventually has Leth mutter about how the tic began, but this quick bit of background doesn’t further our understanding of him. Of course, real human emotion must be eked out before film’s end, with the superficial takeaway that it’s self-defeating to put your life on hold while waiting for something specific to fulfill you. But we already knew that.
The Zero Theorem opens at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center on Sept. 19.