Yet another quixotic quest
THE ZERO THEOREM (M18)
Sci-fi/106 minutes/Opens today
In a dystopian Orwellian world, Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a cog in a giant company, Mancom. He is assigned to the maddeningly difficult zero theorem and waits for an all-important phone call which would reveal to him the meaning of life. He gets distracted, and helped, by femme fatale Bainsley (Melanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the teenage son of Management (Matt Damon).
IT IS nominally science fiction, but film-maker Terry Gilliam has made such distinctive forays into the genre that his works deserve their own label, say, weird-fi.
Brazil (1985) is about a man searching for a woman who appears in his dreams. 12 Monkeys (1995) involves Bruce Willis' character travelling back in time to find a cure for a deadly virus.
Gilliam has called The Zero Theorem the finale of a dystopian satire trilogy which started with those two movies. It involves yet another quixotic quest, in a society which has gone off-kilter with garish consumerism, in-your-face advertising and constant surveillance.
This is a world in which the gamer geeks of today might rule. Qohen Leth (an intense and oddly compelling Christoph Waltz, like a monk in fevered pursuit of the truth) is among the best of them, staring intently at a screen as he fiddles with a joystick and goes through a series of arcane motions which are supposed to serve some obscure purpose.
The zero theorem he is assigned to work on looks like some complicated mathematics game, one which seems arbitrary and unsolvable. What it is supposed to prove is that, ultimately, life has no purpose.
Little wonder that working on it does nothing for Leth's existential angst.
But is he a madman or is he actually on the verge of figuring out the meaning of life and what makes it worthwhile?
It is a pivotal question which drives the film along with the satirical potshots. The surveillance camera in Leth's crumbling church of a home is pointedly mounted on a headless figure of Christ. And Management is elusive, enigmatic and ruthlessly pragmatic.
The movie also features colourful characters, such as Tilda Swinton as a programmed shrink and Lucas Hedges as a world-weary teenager sorely in need of a father figure. And Melanie Thierry nicely balances sexy and sweet as her character skilfully seduces and then comes to care for Leth.
Every Gilliam film offers glimpses into that singular mind of his. It is not a place one would want to get lost in and you probably will not understand what is going on at some point.
It means that watching his films can be challenging and, at points, The Zero Theorem will test your patience and make you wonder what the point of it all is.
But if anyone is closer to getting the cosmic joke which is the universe than Leth, it would be Gilliam.