The Zero Theorem goes to excess

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Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Thierry. Rated PG.

There’s no better example of Terry Gilliam’s First Law of Excess than 12 Monkeys, in which Chris Marker’s 1962 short “La Jetée”—cinema’s most elegant 28 minutes of sci-fi—was blown up by the filmmaker into a bug-eyed, two-hour Brad Pitt–athon.

Similarly, The Zero Theorem is a phantasmagoric headache in which Gilliam’s inexhaustible visual imagination threatens to overwhelm everything, including the slightest of plots.

Does it matter? His closest fans will love that The Zero Theorem is designed as a companion of sorts to both 12 Monkeys and Brazil. Like the latter movie, which is still Gilliam’s most satisfying, even after 30 years, Theorem is about a tragic zero trying to preserve his soul in a psychotic future world. In this case, the monastic weirdo Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) is plucked from his day job “crunching entities” (whatever that means) for the Mancom Corporation, and given the mentally hazardous task of solving the Zero Theorem by the company’s wraithlike head, Management (Matt Damon).

Naturally, Management somehow sees money in the theorem, which would mathematically prove the absolute insignificance of existence. (Yeah, this is a head movie.) Funnily enough, Qohen is on his own private mission, religiously awaiting a phone call, possibly from Monty Python, that will reveal to him the very Meaning of Life itself. The mysterious caller got in touch once before, but Qohen accidentally hung up on him. Zing! See the conflict there?

The govern-mental and bureaucratic monoliths of Brazil are updated here to reflect today’s corporate form of totalitarianism, with commercials that literally follow Qohen down candy-coloured-nightmare streets, yapping at him to “Occupy Wall Street and save big!” But there’s also something curiously off about a film that leans on mouldy Lawnmower Man–era raves like chaos theory and virtual reality to make its point. And what is that point? Um, you’ll need to do a lot of your own private entity-crunching to figure that one out.

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