The trouble with the average portrayal of the dystopian future in films is that often the societies seen are so awful that it becomes apparent no sane individual would reside within them. It’s difficult to imagine a society content with the relentless thoughtcrime of 1984 or the all consuming bleakness of Children of Men. It is here that Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem differs from many of its contemporaries. It’s a story about the individual, who views the outside world as a very personal dystopia.
The story follows Qohen (Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained), a reclusive data analyst, who has become convinced that he is about to receive a phone call that will describe to him his purpose in the universe. This constant stress of waiting for “the call,” combined with an increasingly stressful job, results in Qohen’s hair falling out and a fracturing of his already shaky personality.
The entire first act of the film is dedicated to establishing the intricacies of Qohen, following him as he goes about his day. It’s a risky move – if the audience fails to sympathise with Qohen, the entire opening falls apart. Luckily, his character is instantly sympathetic, thanks in no small part to Waltz’s performance.
The sense of isolation that Qohen feels – the constant outsider in a seemingly contented society – is one that immediately draws the audience in. He isn’t a character wishing to break the mould and unite society, he’s just looking to be left alone to work.
The rest of the film shifts wildly, as Qohen is thrust into a search to prove the universe is a hopeless inevitability. This search finds him in direct contrast with his own personal growth, which manifests as a new found lust for life.
Other notable performances are Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, and Lucas Hedge as Bob. The duo exists primarily as the perfect counterpoint to the reclusive, fading Qohen. Bainsley is an outgoing, bubbly cyber prostitute, utilising a warped virtual reality to entertain a number of anonymous clients online. The relationship between Qohen and Bainsley forms a central bond in the film, polluting Qohen’s mindset even further as she draws closer to him.
Bob is different from Qohen in different and yet no less important ways. While both characters are technologically gifted, Bob is arrogant and spiteful. He reveals in mocking Qohen and his pursuit of “the call,” taking comfort in his own belief of a chaotic , destructive universe. While both characters have their obvious flaws, it’s their relationship with Qohen that ultimately redeems them, but perhaps not in the ways you might expect.
Matt Damon and David Thewlis also make notable appearances, but tragically feel underutilised, particular in Thewlis’ case, who shines despite being relegated to the side-lines for most of the film.
As with most of Gilliam’s work, the world itself plays an important part in the film, and the world of the Zero Theorem may just be his most brilliantly realised one yet. Unlike the hopeless inept wasteland of Brazil, the London on display here is one that seems to teem with vibrancy and life, yet another contrast to Qohen’s rather empty church residence. The world is one that is alive and thriving, and yet it becomes easy to see why the characters involved seem so apart from their surroundings.
Ultimately, The Zero Theorem tells a story that could have felt overly familiar to cinema goers – an outsider searching for his purpose finds meaning through his interactions with those around him. The innovation here comes not in the story itself, but how it is presented. The world is bright, the characters flawed, and the film highly entertaining.
By Cameron McInnes