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Review: 'The Zero Theorem'

Christoph Waltz plays Qohan in Terry Gilliam’s "The Zero Theorem."

The Zero Theorem is an equation in which “zero must equal 100%.” Reaching this goal is the task given to Qohan (Christoph Waltz), the protagonist in Terry Gilliam’s latest futuristic vision of a world gone more than slightly mad. 

Qohan gets this new assignment after complaining to the mysterious Management (Matt Damon) of Mancom, the company for which he works “crunching entities,” at a party thrown by co-worker Joby (David Thewlis). He tells Management he can accomplish more work from home, where Qohan must be anyway to receive the phone call that will explain things, give answers and supply a path to follow to get the most and best of his life. Qohan has been waiting for this call and is beginning to get a bit panicky at how long it’s taking to arrive. After initially telling Qohan he’s completely insane, Management has a change of heart and gives him the task of finding the Zero Theorem. 

This inevitably leads to mental breakdowns because it’s an impossible task, as Joby tells Qohan while congratulating him for his success with Management. This doesn’t stop Qohan from allowing the company to turn one corner of his church/apartment into an office cubicle with the equipment needed to work on the Zero Theorem. Meanwhile Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a beautiful young lady friend of Joby’s, begins coming by his place after he tells Qohan she might be able to help with that phone call.

Gilliam does a masterful job portraying this off-kilter, possibly alternate, possibly not, psychedelic future of life on Earth. Management has its eyes and ears on us all, watching our every move, hearing our every word, and in this version of the future, even plotting out some of the lives of those around and below them. The Zero Theorem is a parable, a warning of the danger of waiting for a call that we overlook when it finally comes. At the same time, it shows how an impersonal corporate structure allows for some genuinely cold decisions that influence and govern the lives of individuals lower down the corporate ladders. There are no lines Management won’t cross to make sure those decisions come to fruition. While Qohan understands this, he also feels he must follow the path set before him, that he has no choice in the matter. It’s a fairly bleak view, which in light of previous work from Gilliam, isn’t altogether surprising.

From Brazil to Time Bandits to Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Twelve Monkeys, from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to The Fisher King to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, most of Gilliam’s films have always been great for getting stoned on a good spliff or three, then watching two or three back to back, laughing at the biting satire and commentary, admiring the wigged-out shapes and colors, and marveling that this guy has done it again, turned out a genuinely funny piece of work that’s also a serious look at a future we seem to have already taken the first steps towards. 

The Zero Theorem is available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and VOD.

Preston Peet

Preston Peet

Editor of "Under the Influence, the Disinformation Guide to Drugs," former editor of DrugWar.com, and writer of numerous articles around the globe.