Why is there this kind of movie that takes a rewatch to be fully understood? Why can’t it be understood in its first viewing? In the case of Terry Gilliam’s latest feature THE ZERO THEOREM, the answer would be because it is too confusing to grasp in its first, or perhaps second, watch. Too bad I don’t have too much time in my hand to ‘join the excitement’; I don’t usually watch a movie two or three times just to understand it. But there’s a catch: are you sure THE ZERO THEOREM worths your next viewing?
THE ZERO THEOREM is a portrait of a future (of course, it’s a Terry Gilliam’s take on future—which is so rich-colored and unorthodox that it feels more like imagination). Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz, hairless) is a solitary working man, perhaps mentally-disturbed—he uses “we” to mention himself in conversations—living in a messed-up ex chapel where rats, flies, and doves become hidden uninvited guests every now and then. He works for a ‘company’ and I got a sense that he’s a programmer there although what he works on in his cubicle is paddling on his bicycle-like seat with his gamestick-like keyboard on his hand operated to move some rubik’s cube-like boxes on his screen to make a good arrangement of pictures (and sometimes numbers and math formulas).
He begs the Management via his supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) to be permitted to do his works at home because he gets so many distractions while working at office. The Management (Matt Damon), in a party (where he wears suits that mimic his surrounding—which I don’t care anyway), grants his wish. He now works at home, with facilities supported by the Management, to solve a project called “The Zero Theorem”: a mathematical project that eventually drags Qohen to a nightmare where he faces a philosophical reality about nothingness and its equal to everything.
The problem starts too early. We are given this philosophical problem that positions itself far beyond our everyday’s logic. It’s not long before we finished THE ZERO THEOREM’s first half that we are shown a scene where Qohen tells Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a girl he meets at a party, about his accidental hang-up to a phone call that ought to give him an information about the meaning of life. And that would be his another reason of why he prefers working from home: he does not want to miss his another call.
Seriously, Qohen is like a reclusive, super introvert guy that never gets out of his building for more than a year because of his home-based work, and will it be easy for us just to accept that this guy is waiting all day and night for a call that will give him an information about the meaning of life? It’s very hard to connect, given that the introduction of the film never really gives us a sense that we are in a true, real future that someday we’ll be stepping our foot on. Everything is detached. Everything feels so otherworldly.
I typed “the zero theorem explained” on Google (I thought I just wanted to make sure that the film was not as obscure as what I got) and I browsed to some returned search results, and then I found some websites and blogs (like this one from Ain’t It Cool News) that gives me a sense we have to watch THE ZERO THEOREM two or even three times to understand the layers and the true meaning. But then I think we all agree that Terry Gilliam is not a director whose works can be easily accepted by everyone—it’s like he has his own unofficial fan club but not everyone can (and wants to) join—so can I just opt for not ‘joining their seemingly exciting revisit’ to THE ZERO THEOREM?
I mean, the last thirty minutes of the movie was like giving me a good understanding of what the movie is actually all about. All the vibrant color, fancy costumes, and sudden appearance of Tilda Swinton (ah, I didn’t notice Ben Whishaw was also in the film) finally make sense, and I thought I didn’t have to get through all fuzziness, all obscurity that comes again and again from the beginning. It’s like viewing the reality from limbo state: you’ll never know if you are in a wrong state or you see a wrong thing.
That makes the film lacks emotion and sympathy, even though I believe Qohen Leth is the kind of character Christoph Waltz rarely jumps into. And it seriously takes a two times Academy Award winner to show an emptiness of a computer genius like Qohen, though it’s never really dug inside-out by the script. Bob (Lucas Hedges), the Management’s son, is an interesting character to pair Qohen, thanks to a good breakout performance by Lucas. Don't forget, we also got Mélanie Thierry who plays so attractively.
It’s hard to comprehend THE ZERO THEOREM because the topic it raised is too serious to be true. It tries to be philosophical but it ends up being delusive, it wants to show reality but it ends up showing imagination. We don’t know from which point of view we should see Qohen’s despair of nothingness, we can’t really grasp into Qohen’s longing for the meaning of life. THE ZERO THEOREM zeroes itself for its effort to intertwine everything into... nothingness.