Say this for Terry Gilliam: Even when he repeats himself, he’s unique. “The Zero Theorem” concerns a sad sack hero laboring for and rebelling against a bureaucratic nightmare corporation sometime in a hellish future. That the movie’s not an outright photocopy of Gilliam’s 1985 breakthrough, “Brazil” — my God, is that film really almost 30 years old? — is a tribute only to the mad fecundity of its maker’s brain. Orwellian paranoia doesn’t die, it just gets fresh trimmings, and while “The Zero Theorem” is as messy and overstuffed as Fibber McGilliam’s closet, its sorrow and anger and demented humor strike just enough fresh sparks to keep this career alive.
The sad sack is Qohen, pronounced “Cohen” or mispronounced “Quinn,” depending on who’s talking, and he’s played by Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Austrian, Christoph Waltz, with clinical depression and a bald head. The screenplay is by Pat Rushin, but it’s jammed with the sardonic cultural drive-bys we’ve come to expect from Gilliam: ads that follow you around telling you that “Organ sales have started — bargains galore!” and talking posters for the Church of Batman the Redeemer. Qohen’s home is a ruined cathedral in a city that looks like Brussels swallowed by Tokyo; he works for ManCom (“Making sense of the good things in life”) in the Ontological Research Division. His job is “crunching entities” — basically he plays video games that reward him with glowing test tubes — but the grind is getting him down.
It’s purposeless to tell you the plot, not because there isn’t one but because Gilliam just doesn’t seem interested. Something about Qohen being reassigned by Management (Matt Damon in changeable power-suits) to the Zero Theorem project, which, when solved, will prove that the universe is meaningless, “a one-time glitch” that will contract into a perfect nothing. (After all, we’re reminded, “Nothing lasts forever.”)
Mostly “The Zero Theorem” is a qualified triumph of set design and squalor, every inch of the frame filled with bric-a-brac, shot with a fish-eye lens to cram in even more junk. Gilliam doesn’t direct movies these days, he choreographs entropy, and to suggest that he could use an editor or throw even one idea away is to insist he become someone else entirely.
Some gems glitter amid the onrush of visual flotsam. An undercurrent of religious symbolism is almost subtle by Gilliam standards: Management’s teenage hacker son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), as a possible Jesus figure, a Christ statue with its head replaced by a surveillance camera. The cybersuit Qohen dons to romantically meld with the lovely Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), who’s either his one true love or a trollop hired by ManCom to keep him in line, is a red jester’s outfit that serves as a comment on our own online follies. “You’re in your computer and I’m in mine — we’re safe here,” coos Bainsley, and suddenly we’re not in the future anymore.
Gilliam has been around long enough that all sorts of familiar indie-movie faces pop up under heavy hairdos: David Thewlis as Qohen’s jolly supervisor, Peter Stormare and Ben Wishaw as quacks, Tilda Swinton (of course) as the hero’s ShrinkBot (of course). There’s even a ghost in the machine; according to the credits, Robin Williams provides the voice of that Church of Batman the Redeemer poster.
Even without Williams’s recent death, 1991’s “The Fisher King” — a shared high-water mark for both actor and director — seems very far away. With “The Zero Theorem,” Terry Gilliam’s signal-to-noise ratio is tipping dangerously close to pure static.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.