Fish out of water stories have a way of tapping in to a specific emotion in the audience. Everyone has felt out of place, for even a moment, and knows how lonely that can feel. In today’s digital age it is easier than ever to feel alone while at the same time being surrounded by people. Terry Gilliam’s latest film THE ZERO THEOREM focuses on one character that is out of place, but manages to do so without affection for him or his predicament.
Terry Gilliam’s filmmaking is centered on the filmmaker’s ability to create new worlds. Though they may be somehow our world’s past or future, he manages to create a completely insular world that feels different than our own. In THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN he made a war-torn village get whisked away into the fantasy world of the Baron. In TWELVE MONKEYS he took our own post-apocalyptic future and filled it with ash and creatures, which made the beauty of what had been, haunt the inhabitants. All of Gilliam’s created worlds are what I think of as reality-adjacent. Even when Bruce Willis’s character in TWELVE MONKEYS returns to our present time it never feels the same as our world. It is a hyper reality, loaded with anxiety, and with insanity appearing to be the only truth to be found. BRAZIL creates a futuristic world of bureaucratic unease. THE ZERO THEOREM returns to a world very similar to that of BRAZIL. Though not identical, the oppressive feeling of overwhelming and all-encompassing technology is there.
Christoph Waltz expertly plays Qohen, our odd man out. The quiet Qohen sticks out like a sore thumb in the loud neon world in which he lives. There are advertisements shouting at him in the street and constant action all around him at his office job. In the midst of a slick modern city Qohen lives in a dilapidated church, which offers him a little peace in the middle of the action. He wears a long black coat when everyone else wears bright colors in sculptural formations. Qohen prefers to eat prefabricated meals and works from home rather than interact with coworkers. Part of Qohen’s unease with his world is that he is convinced that he is waiting for a phone call. This call will tell him what his life’s purpose is and will tell him how to find happiness. The fear of missing the call compels Qohen to stay alert and as close to his telephone as possible.
My initial reaction is to sympathize with Qohen. I can connect with the feeling that the modern world is a little too much to take all at once. Sounds can be too loud, friendly strangers too obnoxious, and choices too plentiful. And who hasn’t felt as though they are still waiting for a metaphorical phone call to change their life? Qohen’s quiet demeanor initially makes him appear like the underdog who we are all conditioned to champion.
Taken in the context of his surroundings, however, Qohen comes across as a less sympatric character. Yes, their world is hurried and invasive. When you take time to observe it, however, that world actually seems pretty great for the rest of its people. Nearly every other character is really happy. Each of them enjoys the parties and other people in the world. Everyone is always smiling and having a grand time, except Qohen. In the middle of a party thrown by his supervisor at work, everyone is having a great time; Qohen is the one who refuses to participate.
Also of note is the fact that everyone who comes in contact with Qohen is friendly and helpful. His supervisor at work allows him to work from home. The owner of the massive corporation not only sets him up with a remote workstation, but sends his own son to help Qohen when his works gets stuck. Qohen is the curmudgeon who tries to evade other people when in fact everyone else seems to be good people. Qohen is a fish out of water in this world, but the world itself is not the problem—Qohen is.
I am not proposing that THE ZERO THEOREM is arguing that against individuality and saying blind conformity is the path to contentment. Rather it does hint that trying new things—as Qohen does at certain points in the film—can open up your world to experiences which you did not know you would like. Qohen can still be himself without fighting so hard against his world. Rather than waiting for his call, he could have seen the happiness that surrounds him every day.
Regardless of how chaotic your world or how uncomfortable you feel in it, letting life pass you by while you wait for your call is silly.