The theme song for Terry Gilliam’s most recent movie is Karen Souza’s soft, silky cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, and the song fits not only The Zero Theorem but many of Gilliam’s most successful films: ‘I’m a creep,’ the singer claims, ‘I’m [End Page 426] a weirdo.’ And, most resonantly: ‘I wish I was special. … I don’t belong here.’ Again and again, Gilliam has told tales of ordinary men trapped in worlds that oppress them with boredom: men who find escape through fantasy. It is no surprise that Gilliam has worked diligently for over a decade, against all odds and misfortunes, on an adaptation of Don Quixote, for the general premise of Cervantes’ novel is Gilliam’s ur-text. Or perhaps it is not Cervantes’ Don Quixote, with all its complex ironies, that inspires him, but rather something more like the popular musical Man of La Mancha, where Quixote is merely the dreamer of impossible dreams, the man who sacrifices his life for the beauty of his fantasies.
The dreamer/creep of The Zero Theorem is named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), with his first name pronounced like kohen or koan (part priest, part paradoxical meditation) and whose last name evokes both the word less and the mythical river of forgetting. Qohen works as an ‘entity cruncher’ for a corporation called Mancom in a dayglo future city of constant surveillance and consumerist bliss, a glitzy mash-up of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, where Big Brother (in this case, Management (Matt Damon)) is always watching you at the feelies. Work, at least at Mancom, has been gamified: Qohen’s cubicle looks like a particularly flashy arcade game, and the computer interface for workers at Mancom is halfway between Q*bert and a flight simulator. (There is a remarkable resemblance between the vision of work in The Zero Theorem with that in the Black Mirror episode ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (UK 2011).) Qohen is the best at his job: fast, efficient, brilliant. But, like many a man who understands numbers better than people, he is a social failure; indeed, interacting with other people causes him pain. He lives alone in an abandoned church that protects him from the noise, light and people of the world, and he desperately wants Management to allow him to work at home. Not only would working at home allow him to be even more efficient as a cruncher, but he would not be so anxious that he might miss his all-important Call. To the bewilderment of his colleagues, Qohen lives for the moment his phone will ring and someone will tell him what his life is for. Long ago, he was told he would receive The Call, and he has not, and he worries that he will die without knowing why he lived.
Management lets Qohen work at home, so long as he works on the problem of the Zero Theorem, a problem that his supervisor Joby (David Thewliss) has told him brings madness to everyone who attempts to solve it. Qohen struggles with the theorem obsessively, failing again and again until finally he smashes his computer equipment. Soon, Management’s 15-year-old computer genius son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), shows up to help Qohen through, giving him a few [End Page 427] tips, helping him relax a bit, ordering pizza as any good Sancho Panza would. Also helping Qohen relax is Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a blonde bombshell of a virtual reality call girl, who meets Qohen in real life and then welcomes him to a VR beach where they can sit and talk and even, eventually, make love.
As Dulcinea to Qohen’s Quixote, Bainsley of course must fall in love with the aging, bald weirdo-creep, and when she does so as Aldonza Management pulls the plug: no reality is allowed in his workers’ dreams. Qohen, who has never known what the Zero Theorem is or does or might be, gets sucked up into the neural network at headquarters, where...