Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is the last of his dystopian trilogy, following Brazil (1985) and 12 Monkeys (1995). Or, at least, that is what Gilliam had in mind when he planned and directed this movie. Despite many similarities with Gilliam’s past efforts, however, this is not a quintessential dystopian film like Brazil. The story takes place in a dystopian future, to be sure. Yet, this is not the central theme of this essentially philosophical work.
This is the story of a mad genius, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). He has been waiting his entire life for one telephone call, the call that reveals him the secret: the reason why anything exists; the reason why we bother to go on; and the reason why everything is not nothing. In the mean time, he works for an all-powerful corporation, Mancom, run by a mysterious man called The Management (Matt Damon). Qohen has been requesting a permission to work from home for quite sometime in vain, and he worries that he might miss that call. One evening, at a party which he was forced to attend, he encounters The Management in a deserted room. The Management offers a special assignment to Qohen and allows him to work alone from his home. The assignment was to solve the Zero Theorem, according to which ‘everything is indeed nothing’. Whilst Qohen devotes himself to solve the Zero Theorem, he continues to wait for the call. As his desire to solve the theorem intensifies, he finds himself in a unresolvable dilemma: if the call reveals the meaning of life, then, surely the Zero Theorem must be wrong, and thus his work would be wasted; yet if he manages to solve it, then there is no meaning of life at all. As he loses grip on reality by living through this contradiction, a woman he met at the party, Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), begins to challenge Qohen’s ritualised life style, rigid assumptions, and his existential fear that the Zero Theorem may be ultimately right and there is no meaning of life after all.
This is a philosophical tale which resembles a parable written by Franz Kafka. In Kafka’s tale, “Before the Law”, a man spends his entire life waiting to be admitted to the Law. As he is dying, it is revealed that the Law is there for him alone, yet, it is never meant to be accessed. This story acutely represents Qohen’s utmost angst. Like Kafka’s protagonist, Qohen waits his entire life waiting for the meaning of life to be disclosed. Yet, by a cruel twist of fate, he dedicates himself for a project that potentially negates his hope. So, the real question is : What should one do with this supposed paradox? I suspect that most of us would not do as Qohen does.
It is a tragic tale, performed magnificently by Christoph Waltz. True, there are plenty of Gilliam’s signature visual splashes in this film. Yet, once you focus on the theme and the story, you will appreciate that this is a very different feature from his other work. Unfortunately, Gilliam is not his best friend in this particular case. His trademark visual brilliance might be offering too many distractions for the audience to fully engage with the subject of this film. Despite the negatives as such, Waltz’s presence and performance give this story its life. He perfectly rendered Qohen's tragicomical existence. At times, he was easily as comical as Johnny Depp at his best. Yet, there were moments Waltz elevated Qohen to a state of devastating nobility—the nobility of a person who faces squarely at his fate despite his intense desire to do otherwise. Admirably, Waltz appears neither stony nor grim in doing so; his performance is espoused with touching vulnerability. Without Waltz’s tour de force, this movie could not have achieved its tragic effect.
Otherwise, this tale would resemble that of, say, a chess player who strives to find the ultimate truth of the game on the board. Since there are more possible moves than the total number of the atoms in the entire universe during one game, it seems implausible for anyone to unlock the forced sequence that leads to the irrefutable conclusion, even with the aid of a supercomputer. The problem in seeking the impossible is: as one is engrossed in the problem, one forgets entirely the world in which the game and the player him/herself exist, as if the entire universe is represented by the 64 squares of the chess board. Only when one accepts chess as it is, i.e., a mere game, can one be in a position to enjoy playing it again. Whilst it is an interesting exercise (in futility, one might add) if you love the game, it remains utterly trivial for bystanders.
Fortunately, perhaps, it appears that our protagonist, despite acting against his great desire to be free and to live, reaches the point of stoic equanimity. Whether you should accept this serene landscape or not is an entirely separate question. Most of us would perhaps choose to run away with our Replicant lover, as opposed to staying and seeing it to the end as Qohen did. Yet, Waltz’s compelling performance elevated this figure into a tragic one, rather than a merely and completely mad one.