An isolated and eccentric computer hacker (Christoph Waltz) is working on a secretive program initiated by the mysterious 'Management', with the intent of finding a formula to find out if there is a purpose to human existence. His work is continually interrupted first by a sexy woman and a teenage boy, but each has their own connection to 'Management'.

Dull and out of date.

a spectacle every bit as vulgar and hollow as the culture it’s ostensibly criticising

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: There’s a lot to lament in this farrago—and also, a little to cherish—but I find it hard to improve upon the comment of a friend after we emerged from the screening. What, he wanted to know, is it actually about? And not in any highfalutin’, thematic sense. What’s it about in terms of basic story?

His conclusion: somewhere in a city, a man is unhappy with his job. (The drudgery of paid work being, in the Gilliam universe, a horror comparable to Solzhenitsyn’s time in the Gulag.) As incarnated by a shaven-headed Christoph Waltz, Qohen Leth is more robot than man, pushing pixels around a computer screen in the name of 'entity crunching’ for the Mancom Corporation. Until one day he looks up from his cubicle, and begins to intimate the existence of some other, richer world.

And, er, that’s about it.

Sure, some further complications ensue. There’s a summons from his boss (a game Matt Damon), and something about a quest to prove the titular Zero Theorem, which may or may not hold the answers to all things; there’s a mysterious, capricious woman. But none of them amount to much; at its core, this remains basically just a story of mid-level employee dissatisfaction. And while I can sympathise to some extent—because, hell, why did we become critics, anyway (or filmmakers, for that matter) if not to dodge the drudgery of a regular job?—at the same time there’s something faintly objectionable about Gilliam’s staunch refusal to accord any dignity to labour whatsoever. On the contrary: work is consistently depicted, in his movies, as a trap for suckers and a sop to drones, a cruel hindrance to the creative spirit, which yearns to transcend such petty concerns and soar free, upon wings of purest song.

If this sounds familiar, reminiscent of poor, doomed Sam Lowry’s rebellion (and flight) in Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil, then this is no surprise: this feature, its maker’s first since 2009’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, revisits many of that earlier film’s motifs, from its savage critique of media, to its steampunk aesthetic—though all to depressingly inferior effect. It’s in this sense, more than any other, that this seems an old man’s movie, a particularly enervated example of Late Style. As Yeats put it, in The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 'What can I but enumerate old themes?’

Gilliam has always seemed disinterested in conventional narrative; his concerns are primarily to do with texture and mood. Yet ironically, his films have always proved most interesting when he’s been paired with a strong screenwriter: former Python colleague Michael Palin for Time Bandits, playwright Tom Stoppard for Brazil, veteran David Peoples (Unforgiven, Blade Runner) for Twelve Monkeys"¦ This time, though, he’s teamed with a relative neophyte, Pat Rushin (who reportedly submitted an early version of the script to HBO’s short-lived Project Greenlight), and the lack of experience shows. There’s no real structure here, and no characterisation. And Qohen himself—semi-autistic, incapable of even the most rudimentary social interactions—makes for a remarkably tedious protagonist.

Which might matter less, were he surrounded by so much as a single identifiable human being. But no: he’s instead stranded among the kind of caricatures who populated Bresson’s The Fifth Element—a similarly uneasy mixture of dystopian sci-fi with a mode best described (by Bakunin) as the 'carnivalesque’. Like that film, this is meant to be a lavish romp; and like it, it’s actually a bore—a spectacle every bit as vulgar and hollow as the culture it’s ostensibly criticising. By the time Tilda Swinton turns up, to deliver history’s worst rap—yes, even worse than this— one might be forgiven for averting one’s eyes in embarrassment.

No less cringeworthy are its attempts at futurism—so embarrassingly dated, so stuck at 1988, that I half-expected to see Mr. C from The Shamen gurning through one of its party sequences. Gilliam is now 72, and while I’m sure he still feels inside like the prankish outsider he was at 30, it’s neither fair nor reasonable to expect him to be au courant with all things new and shiny—indeed, it could seem faintly desperate and/or creepy, like your retired dad suddenly taking to Twitter. But would it be too much to ask him to hire a production designer who’s spent some time actually living in this century? As it is, just about every element here—from the brightly-coloured, rave-like costumes, to the crude, Windows 95-style computer graphics on Qohen’s screen—appear jarringly anachronistic and wrong.

For years—and certainly since the collapse of his Don Quixote project (and the Man of La Mancha doc which chronicled, in terms first comical and then pitiless, its downfall)—Gilliam has been content to let himself be regarded as a victim of fate: buffeted by forces beyond his control, and innately at odds with the bottom-line mindset of the studios, yet clinging tenaciously to the integrity of his vision and his methods. And some of this is true, and a little of it is admirable—though his stubborn insistence on star Jean Rouchefort, for Quixote, revealed a serious lapse in the practical good sense that is, as much as blocking a scene, part and parcel of directing a movie.

And while it’s true that’s he’s obliged to operate, these days, on a budget considerably smaller than his imagination requires, he also has a clutch of major movie stars—Damon and Waltz and Swinton—prepared to follow him into the breach. Yet infuriatingly, they’re given nothing to work with. Gilliam simply winds up his fantasy world and lets it tick away, blithely unconcerned by petty things like psychology or basic plot-development, which presumably seem too much like the work he despises. As such, one is forced to conclude that, ultimately, his problems are mostly of his own making.