Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is a computer hacker who has spent much of his life waiting for a phone call. At his request, the Management (Matt Damon) allows him to work at home, in case the call comes, but in his attempt to be alone with his work and his thoughts, Qohen finds himself connecting with the people the Management sends to help and distract him.
Gilliam has imagined the world of The Zero Theorem as a retro-futuristic, brightly coloured madland, a weird futuristic setting that combines Steampunk and Dr Seuss into something completely Gilliam-esque. Christoph Waltz is wonderful in the lead role; he embodies the bewildered, warm and gentle character of Qohen completely. Qohen is as bewildered by the world as the audience is, and it is through understanding him that we understand the actions and universe of The Zero Theorem.
Mélanie Thierry is a charming as futuristic cyber-slut who refuses to have sex, Tilda Swinton lays on the kooky as Dr Shrink-Rom, Qohen’s cyber therapist, Lucas Hedges adds to the oddness of the world as a boy genius who calls everyone Bob and Matt Damon channels his inner Jean Paul Gaultier/David Byrne/Philip Seymour Hoffman as the enigmatic and frustrating Management. David Thewlis plays Joby; a character as different from Qohen as it is possible to be. Joby accepts and flourishes in this mad world, as much as it bewilders and isolates Qohen.
The story is actually rather simple; Qohen is tasked with solving a computer riddle where 100% must equal zero, thus proving the zero theorem and proving that everything is worthless. The charm, however, lies in the fact that Qohen’s life – up to the point where he started work on the theorem – was basically proof that the theorem was correct, but as he works to prove the idea, he realises that maybe he was wrong after all. Of course, this being Gilliam, this realisation is wrapped up in reams of dialogue and personal quirks, such as Qohen referring to himself by the majestic plural.
The Zero Theorem is as much a mess as we could expect from a Terry Gilliam film, but at the heart of it – when the heart can be found through layers of dialogue, quirks and kooky characters – this is a simple and charming story about companionship, friendship and acceptance of oneself. Perhaps one of Gilliam’s least accessible films, it’s best not to think about it too much and let it wash over you. It will come to you in the end.