Director: Terry Gilliam; Screenwriter: Pat Rushin; Starring: Christoph Waltz, Matt Damon, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton; Running time: 107 mins
Described by esteemed filmmaker Terry Gilliam as the final part of his dystopian satire trilogy, following Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, The Zero Theorem is an uneven endeavour that feels thematically outdated despite its futuristic setting. Gilliam's visceral prowess constantly bolsters the fable, which follows Christoph Waltz's corporate worker bee Qohen as he tries to solve a mathematical formula that could unlock the meaning of life. Clearly The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy was out of print.
Increasingly reclusive, Qohen has to contend with his patronising boss Joby (David Thewlis) and the soul-sapping machinations of the 'Management' and Matt Damon's amusingly attired boss. But the apparently amorous affections of a mysterious femme fatale called Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) pose a huge conundrum to the increasingly beleaguered drone.
The Zero Theorem is alienating and frustrating in equal measures for a first hour that's littered with anti-corporate ideas that appear to have been recycled from Gilliam's superior 1985 movie Brazil. The characters' repetitive deadpan prattling about 'The Management' often makes you feel like you're trapped in a never-ending Hale and Pace sketch.
A grim cityscape that fuses dilapidated buildings with ultramodern technology and sharply executed visual gags, like animated advertising signs that stalk pedestrians, are relied upon to sustain a degree of interest until Qohen's interactions with Bainsley are foregrounded in the latter stages. The payoff is surprisingly poignant and resoundingly rewards viewers who were willing to wade through the troubled first half and invest emotionally.
Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Thierry work tremendously well together, with the contrasting sexual repression and liberty of their characters providing a platform for laughter and resonance. They even manage to survive several sequences of virtual reality encounters that could have been stale in lesser hands. After all, it's two decades since Sly Stallone deposited both barrels during a remote rendezvous with Sandra Bullock in Demolition Man.
The Zero Theorem's central theme is anachronistic as a portent, revolving around the dangers of technology and its harmful effects on the ability of humans to form emotional connections. Cinema has already reheated and rehashed this subject matter beyond all recognition. Yet there's a timelessness to the affection and charm with which Terry Gilliam depicts his central characters, with Waltz and Thierry ultimately transcending the patchy nature of the story.