In movies like Brazil and 12 Monkeys Terry Gilliam established himself as a master of the dystopian. With his new film The Zero Theorem, he's created a garish, repulsive social media future full of "happy" surveillance and overworked techies. It's a compelling vision, but the movie never quite lives up to its own designs.
The world of The Zero Theorem is reminiscent of Brazil, full of psychedelic fashions, disturbingly sculpted hairstyles, decaying citiscapes and anachro-futuristic tech cobbled together from at least two centuries of different machine parts. Qohen (played with humorless anti-charisma by Christoph Waltz) is a neurotic shut-in who works for Mancom analyzing "entities," which he explains are "more complicated than numbers." All he wants to do is work from home, but the mysterious management at Mancom keeps forcing him to work from his bicycle-powered, neon cubicle under Facebook Headquarters-esque cameras that say "Mancom is watching."
In a truly breathtaking sequence, Qohen picks his way to work down a busy urban street, blasted by ads for the Occupy Wall Street department store (it's having a sale!) and popups that harass him with offers for products that will give him peace of mind. It's a fantastic satire of a future ruled by corporate internet media, where the streets are full of homeless people but the skies glow with sales pitches for virtual worlds and fake friends.
Gilliam's fantastic visual sense works brilliantly to evoke the world of Mancom, too. Qohen and his colleagues work with machines that produce vials of glowing liquid, which they "save" by inserting them into hands that reach out of glowing slots. It feels surreal, but also not entirely implausible. In this future, the line between machines and bodies seems almost non-existent.
Mancom's management finally lets Qohen work from home, but only if he's willing to tackle their "zero theorem" project. His goal with the project — which has already driven several coders insane — is to prove that "zero equals 100%." Various characters interpret this theorem for us, suggesting that Mancom wants to prove that there is no meaning in the universe or perhaps is just trying to show that the universe is headed for a "big crunch" where space and time collapse. We never really know what the zero theorem is, but we do see it driving Qohen gradually more insane.
Qohen, you see, is convinced that he's going to receive a phone call that will explain the meaning of his life to him. In another movie, this weird belief might be treated as some kind of redemptive character trait — the faith that keeps the little worker bee going despite the oppressive boredom of his life. But in The Zero Theorem, it's actually a form of madness that makes Qohen exploitable. Mancom management actually wants him to believe in it — they even go so far as to assign a camgirl sex worker and an AI shrink to him, who both promise to help him get the call.
As Qohen works toward the theorem with increasing twitchiness, he manages to form a couple of human connections that draw him out of his monklike code mania. Mancom's sex worker Bainsley seems to genuinely like him, for reasons we never quite understand. And a fifteen-year-old hardware hacker named Bob helps Qohen understand that he's just Mancom's "tool," manipulated into entity-crunching at the expense of true joy. The problem with this arc is that we never quite understand what's at stake for Qohen, nor what's caused his mental illness (if indeed it really is mental illness — it might just be a more garden variety fear or emotional paralysis).
Perhaps the root of the problem is that Qohen is never a terribly likable or coherent character. He is a madman who allows himself to be used as a tool by management even when he knows better. But we don't understand why. As a result, what happens to him feels less like a tragedy and more like a series of random, disturbing vignettes. We get that this is a portrait of a man who is too far gone to be redeemed, and whose crazy, beautiful imagination has made him a chump rather than a rebel. But we never feel for him.
As a personal and social dystopia, The Zero Theorem works tremendously well. And it's a masterpiece of design and worldbuilding. But as a story, it feels unformed and purposeless. It's worth watching for all the satirical touches and design, but don't be surprised if you leave feeling unsatisfied with the characters — and unmoved by their fates.