MOVIES

TERRY GILLIAM AND THE DYSTOPIAN HOLY GRAIL

The director's latest seeks the answer to life, the universe and everything — or nothing

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Diminished expectations can only help in a 
 dark room.

That adage favors both director Terry Gilliam and his ascetic protagonist in The Zero Theorem. Gilliam's efforts over the past decade with The Brothers Grimm and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus didn't stack up very well against his earlier classics — Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (With this director, you can type the words classic and visionary with credibility.)

Gilliam unleashes his vision in this digital dystopia of a near-future London, so outlandish and over-stimulating we can dismiss it as satire — almost. But not quite, because he reminds us that maybe we're not so far away , and that point is driven home by the hairless, joyless, self-disciplined man out of time, Qohen.

In Qohen (pronounced Co-en, we're reminded often), Christoph Waltz is the opposite of his suave, manipulative Colonel Hans Landa. Qohen's barely holding his life together, but he's the best worker at ManCom at "crunching entities." That's much more complicated than crunching numbers, though he uses a game controller, not a keyboard, and the work eventually pushes him beyond a limit that gamers will understand. Underlining his many tics, Qohen refers to himself as "we" — not the royal "we," the cellular one.

His focus at the outset is to telecommute, and given the media oversaturation when he leaves home, you can't blame him. Outside the dim, fire-damaged monastery where he lives, Qohen faces the bright lights of ads reacting to his presence, an invitation to join the Church of Batman the Redeemer and signs that outlaw everything from cell phones to pets and from high heels to kids.

Management (a character played by Matt Damon) allows Qohen to work from home on a special project, trying to tackle the titular theorem, and sends 15-year-old genius Bob to help. Solving that "nasty Zippity T" would 
prove that "the universe is all for nothing," 
that we're all a product of this limited-time-only 
Big Bang glitch.

The project is the seeming antithesis of Qohen, who is pining for his own true calling, which he fully believes will come literally via a phone call. Hence, his desire to work at home.

Q, as Bob calls him, works tirelessly on the solution, getting help from his perpetually peppy supervisor Joby (David Thewlis), his Dr. Shrink-Rom program (Tilda Swinton), Bob (Lucas Hedges) and the alluring Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who's there to save him. Bainsley's assistance, in particular, proves more of a distraction, especially during cyberspace rendezvous. "It feels so super-tingly," she squeals as she entices Qohen to try it. Can the disciplined Qohen resist?

There and elsewhere, the film draws from sci-fi classics, referencing 1984, The Matrix and eXistenZ.

Theorem will inevitably be compared to Gilliam's early dystopian satire Brazil. Unsurprisingly, it falls short of that cult classic, but it's far more cohesive than The Brothers Grimm and less of a wandering spectacle than Doctor Parnassus (Heath Ledger's death and Gilliam's decision to cast Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law as a collective in Ledger's stead was a major factor).

But the philosophical questions Theorem poses — on order, chaos, the soul and the meaning of life (if any) — are as interesting as those in Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, with a stellar cast to lift those layers. The answers to the theorem and to Qohen's calling lie inward.

In a dark room, the paradoxical Gilliam lets us know, "It all adds up to something."

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