This is a beautiful movie to look at. If you like Terry Gilliam’s aesthetics, he does not deviate much from his usual style in The Zero Theorem (2014). You’ve seen his movies that take place in the future before, and it’s fascinating to see how Gilliam has adapted his futuristic-technology-mixed-with-stuff-that-looks-like-it-was-made-from-welding-a-junkyard-together look to 2014’s version of the future. (Yes, I know he didn’t write the film, thank you, but you must recognize that a lot of what you see on set is Gilliam’s doing.) The video marketing street ads that we’re starting to get now have a bigger role in society in The Zero Theorem, as they follow you around, offering you products. People skate around in their colorful clothes, and the costumes make every day look like Halloween, including the chameleon jacket worn by Matt Damon that takes on whatever pattern he might be standing in front of. On one hand you have bright colored computer monitors and cell phones, but on the other, you have something as beautifully Gilliamesque as the constantly ringing phone, which looks like a lot of retro things all mashed into one object. The attention to detail will make you want to watch the film again to pick up on more bits going on in the background. For example, you don’t quite have the time to read all of the signs at the park, which declare “no umbrellas,” “no brief cases,” and “no smiling.”
The characters are cast and dressed in diverse ways, leaving you feel like many different worlds are colliding–the quiet, stressed, solitary work world of the protagonist Qohen; the brightly colored, ditzy reality of the sex worker love interest; the frazzled, loud, fast-talking, constantly changing outfits world of Qohen’s boss; the slang, pizza-eating world of the teenage boy with his Burtonesque bodyguards, and so on. It is interesting to see the effects of this collage of characters on Qohen’s life, but it can also leave the viewer feeling a little unsteady. What genre is it meant to be? Time Out New York begged for less of the philosophical theme and more jokes like the plaza called “Occupy Mall Street;” however, I wanted more math and science, more theme (and more plot for pete’s sake), and less of the things like the Mall Street joke that are going to date this film. I mean, why do cell phones look basically the same and why is everyone wearing earbuds, when in reality (or at least as reality as New York gets), half of the people who used to use earbuds have already switched over to the retro cans? Many of these things are not going to hold up, but maybe that’s why this future doesn’t look quite like Brazil either, because that future was based on society in 1985 and is dated.
As nice as this film is to look at, and as breathtaking as it might be to watch a black hole on a cinema screen, the plot and theme will leave you wanting. As any elementary literature lesson will teach you, plot is one thing that causes another that causes another. In this film, the most gravity is given to scenes that have no effect on anything to come. While the love story does echo the feel of the love stories in Brazil and 12 Monkeys, it distracts us from everything else that could have been going on, which wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t amounted to nothing. The teenage boy’s role also takes up a lot of screen time and leads us nowhere. The boy’s bodyguards are meant to be exaggerated and funny, like Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor in Brazil, but they don’t fit in and are not as funny as they are meant to be. The one place the humor (not that it’s meant to be a comedy) succeeds is in David Thewlis constantly coming knocking in some other outrageous outfit.
But, ignoring all of that, there were really only to pieces in the Jenga tower that were loose enough to let the movie come crashing down around me in the cinema. One is that I needed more science and math in order to empathize with the character and his task. The central conflict of the movie is that Qohen is assigned a new job, which is considered a burn-out job and might just be impossible. I think it has to do with measuring mass in the universe and proving that all is for nothing, but we aren’t given enough detail to really understand it, so it’s all double-speak. There is one intriguing moment when Joby (Thewlis) says that neutrinos have a tiny bit of mass, which is almost no mass, but it isn’t zero mass, so all of that mass must add up to something, right? He says it haunts him. As a viewer, I want to leave the cinema feeling haunted by this fact as well, even if it is science fiction, but we aren’t given enough of the implications of this fact to feel as haunted as he does. Also, the theory of the movie seems to be that someday there will be a “big crunch,” which is like the big bang, but it happens when everything stops moving outwards and gravity begins to pull it all back in again. This was a popular theory for a while…until 1997 when they proved that there isn’t enough mass in the universe for this to happen and it’s more likely that we’ll keep expanding forever until there is literally nothing left because every bit of matter has come apart. I’m okay with the idea that this 1997 theory will be disproved in the future, but they don’t tell us that, so the big crunch that threatens their lives doesn’t feel threatening to me, and I don’t feel the tension.
The second piece that ruined the movie for me was that the big mystery for the viewer is why Qohen waits for a phone call. What is this phone call? Why does he believe he’ll receive it? I won’t tell you what the phone call is, but the reason that he believes he’ll get the phone call (spoilers) is because he just felt it, just knew it. What? I can’t relate to that. I believe things because I’ve been told things or I’ve deduced things from what I’ve witnessed or thought about, and I’m not talking as someone who accepts the world by empirical evidence alone. Even faith is triggered by something. This is a lazy answer and a disappointment to all who’ve waited throughout the movie to find out. Even if they did something cliche like his faith in this phone call was triggered by him misunderstanding something, or someone he cared about telling him about it on their deathbed, or whatever, at least we’d be able to relate to that.
Matt Damon’s character says that because Qohen is a man of faith, he has led a meaningless life. This makes us wonder if this is what the author means or whether it is said ironically because it comes from the mouth of someone we don’t trust. However, we will have to continue to wonder because things then start to blow up and it’s never addressed again. I can only imagine that with the oncoming black hole at the end of time, it was said in earnest, that life is meaningless and the search for truth and ignoring the good things in life like people and love will make it stale and empty. But, this is not a new revelation to viewers. In the words of someone at the end of their life, discovering there is nothing next, “That’s all there is?”