It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Terry Gilliam, the onetime Monty Python animator turned influential filmmaker, is incapable of putting a dull image onscreen. "The Zero Theorem," his first science fiction movie since 1996's "Twelve Monkeys," is a visual dazzler on the level we'd expect from the director. As always, he fills the screen with intricately choreographed tableaus that have that ferociously jumbled quality: there are usually four or five things going on in each shot, and they're always related to the film's main themes. The cast, which includes Christoph Waltz, Melanie Theirry, Matt Damon and David Thewlis, is world-class. It's hard to imagine how any individual part of the physical production could be improved.
But the movie's allegory-steeped plot — in which Waltz's, Qohen Leth, who "crunches entities" for a technology company called Mancom, tries to solve a theorem that'll reveal if life has meaning — is a case of "close, but no cigar." And no matter how feverishly Gilliam directs and no matter how enthusiastically his actors act, the whole thing remains too, er, theoretical—as if its main purpose is to demonstrate or disprove certain propositions rather than invest us in the hero's quest for happiness and enlightenment. Knowing Gilliam's humanism, this seems unlikely, but that's what comes through.
Screenwriter Richard Pushin was reportedly inspired by the book of Ecclesiastes, but the plot seems equally influenced by "Waiting for Godot," "1984" and the collected works of Franz Kafka (the latter two sources shaped Gilliam's "Brazil" as well). Even though it was written directly for the screen, "Zero Theorem" often feels like a stage play that was adapted without being fully remained as a movie. It's visually energetic but ultimately feels constrained and repetitious. The main locations are Mancom headquarters, a nightclub filled with writhing revelers, and the hero's apartment/laboratory, a cavernous space with a black-and-white chessboard-style floor and smoky shafts of light streaming through windows. The cathedral-like quality of Quohen's place befits the spiritual pilgrim who occupies it. Quohen has been depressed and angry for a long time because he keeps hoping for a phone call that will assure him that life has meaning (shades of "Godot") ; when it finally arrives, he muffs it and spends the rest of the movie beating himself up.
Quohen is reassigned to work at home by the company's psych evaluator, Dr Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton), an artificially intelligent computer program who simulates warmth and involvement. (Swinton is hilariously intense here; between this role and her bucktoothed-Ayn-Rand routine in "Snowpiercer," the Hugos should give her a Most Valuable Player award.) Quohen gets diagnosed with ailment after ailment and eventually dons a body suit that connects him directly to the Internet, making his physical being virtual. It's red and green, with a hoodie cap like a droopy Alpine horn that tapers into braided, vaguely intestinal cables. When Quohen wears the suit while sitting at his terminal typing, the image suggests a porn-addicted Christmas elf.