Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem,” like most of his films, focuses on the all-too-thin line between sanity and insanity, reality and delusion. Its steampunk-meets-cyberpunk visual style is a wonderful jumble that’s reminiscent of his much loved “Brazil,” with touches like a computer mainframe that looks like a blast furnace, or personally targeted advertising blasting commercials for The Church of Batman the Redeemer.

At its heart, though, it’s a portrait of a hikikomori, the Japanese term for shut-ins who almost entirely disconnect from the outside world, refusing to leave their rooms and existing in isolation. While this is a very modern phenomenon, Gilliam makes the connection to ancient monastic solitude explicit by placing his tonsured hero in an abandoned cathedral that has been converted into a hacker’s den, all stained glass, gleaming monitors and fluttering pigeons.

Qohen Leth, played by a shaven-headed Christoph Waltz, is a reclusive coding genius specializing in ontological research and employed by the nebulous Mancom Corp. (which, rather like Google, seeks to know everything about everyone for its own nefarious reasons). Leth seems like he’s touched with a bit of Asperger’s, referring to himself using the royal “we”, and begs his manager (David Thewlis) to be put on disability so he can work entirely from home, never having to face the disorienting outside world — but, moreover, to be able to answer his phone, for “we” are expecting a very important call, a call that will tell him nothing less than his reason for being.

The Zero Theorem (Zero no Mirai)
Run Time 107 mins
Language English
Opens May 16

Eventually his employers accede to his request, and in return, he is put to work on the “zero theorem,” a mathematical proof that the universe will wind up as nothing — basically, that life itself is meaningless. This drives him nearly out of his mind, so to shore him up, his employers send in a software psychoanalyst (Tilda Swinton) and a specialist in biokinetic tantric telemetrics, i.e., a virtual escort girl named Bainsley (Melanie Thierry).

Flashes of Gilliam’s warped sense of humor abound: There’s a party where all the guests, dressed in garish neo-New Romantic fashions, dance around the room, each clutching a tablet, wearing headphones and jerking to their own beat. There’s a socially awkward programmer who calls everyone he meets Bob, because he can’t be bothered to waste brain cells by remembering anyone’s name. And the film’s depiction of virtual sex, where Leth dons a full body suit wired with sensors to inhabit a computer-generated tropical paradise with Bainsley, is probably only a few years away.

Like most films that take place almost entirely in one room (think of Richard Linklater’s “Tape” or Roman Polanski’s “Carnage”), “The Zero Theorem” is a bit of a claustrophobic affair — perhaps too much so in the film’s second half. No doubt this is due to budget constraints, and fans of “Brazil” or “12 Monkeys” may be left wanting more, but the reality is that Gilliam has done the best with what he’s got. Beyond that, Gilliam has said that with “Brazil” he was trying to paint a portrait of where we were at then — a “1984”-like Orwellian nightmare of smothering bureaucracy and a perpetual war on terror — while with “The Zero Theorem,” he’s trying to depict where we’re at now, and now is very much about experiencing so much of our lives via a screen in a room, where code is taking the place of connections, and corporations and consumerism, more so than government, are the forces shaping our daily lives.

For the most part, though, “The Zero Theorem” is a film that grapples with the big questions — why are we here, what does it all mean? — albeit with a laugh, as opposed to the portentous gravitas of “Interstellar.” Gilliam is often called a fantasist, but this film — like “The Fisher King”, “Tideland” and “Brazil” — is about nothing less than the beauty and importance of human connection.

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