Whatever film Terry Gilliam conceived in his head when making this retro lo-fi Orwellian shaggy dog tale isn’t the one that appears on the screen.
This is what you get when an ex-Python has an idea that may have sustained a 10 min sketch forty odd years ago and expands it to feature length on a grand – even heroic – scale and works his variations on a theme around psychopathic corporate identity and that Python mainstay, meaning of life, which have been done to death by Gilliam and many others countless times before but does not add anything new. It’s a film that puts naivety into the knowing and even has David Thewlis doing a cheap Eric Idle impression as a parasite line manager, governor.
Set in London at some undefined period in the future but looking decidedly Dickensian, it has one of those familiar regressive dystopian backdrops where hideous neon signs blend with Fagin style haunts. And much of the humour would not be out of place in old time Victorian music halls – nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more – or a nostalgic/grubby postcard from yesteryear.
Christoph Waltz, head shaven and intense, plays Qohan, a manic computer genius with special responsibility for cracking the seemingly unsolvable Zero Theorem brain-teaser and proving everything equals nothing. At the same time, he waits in vain for a telephone call from a higher authority – a deity, perhaps – to decode the mysteries of the absurd – life – and relieve his permanent disorientation; one that makes him describe himself in the plural as the once emphatic ‘I’ disappears in a global maze of e-communication and Big Brother surveillance. The theorem (Existentialism without a cause) and the call (spiritual Essentialism) are mutually exclusive, of course, and remain nothing more than possibilities, neither proving or disproving each other – a Gilliam paradox – but offering the invisible BB – ‘management’ – with ambiguities to exploit.
We see Qohan at home, mostly, a fire-damaged chapel looking more like a Twenties German Expressionist film set for a mad scientist – with a touch of Ed Wood thrown in for good measure – driving himself to distraction with an algebraic formula in the form of a giant computer game. There are distractions along the way from a patronising raping e-psychologist (Tilda Swinton), an e-cyber-sex-worker (Mélanie Thierry) and the boss’ fifteen year old son as the only character smart enough to understand the concept of nothingness. They are all as predictable in their unpredictability as they sound.
Although some moments of Gilliam surreal magic – the Church of Batman, the Redeemer – occasionally threaten to bring the film alive, ultimately, they cannot save it from being as pointless as the Zero Theorem itself.