Terry Gilliam’s newest film, The Zero Theorem, is scripted by Pat Rushin, who has apparently watched, digested, and internalized Gilliam’s entire oeuvre and written what is sort of the Platonic Ideal Terry Gilliam film. Serving as the third installment in what has retroactively become Gilliam’s Orwellian Triptych, which began with 1985’s Brazil and continued with 1995’s 12 Monkeys, The Zero Theorem is a compendium of thematic preoccupations from Gilliam’s entire career that plays out more as an allegory than either of the previous entries. Ostensibly, the film tells the story of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a neurotic computer programmer-of-sorts for the Mancom company, who is assigned by Management (Matt Damon) to solve the “Zero Theorem” and prove that everything equals nothing. Previous people assigned the task have been driven mad, but Qohen, who suffers from any number of anxieties and fears (which have caused all of his hair to fall out), is well on his way to madness already, referring to himself in the third person, waiting for a mysterious phone call that will reveal to him the meaning of life (of his life, anyway), and fearing Nothing more than anything. After coming close to completion, but hitting a wall in his calculations (and losing the grip on his already tenuous mental stability), Qohen is ready to quit, but is assigned female companionship in the form of internet call girl Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and assistance in the form of Management’s son, computer whiz-kid Bob (Lucas Hedges), to get him back on track. As the story progresses, though, it becomes more and more surreally bizzare until finally Qohen utilizes an interactive cyberspace bodysuit that has been modified to find his soul, and projects himself to Mancom’s supercomputer mainframe, eventually surrendering to the objective meaninglessness that exists in the collapse of SpaceTime, as represented by the supermassive black hole that is the death of the universe. Whew! Where Brazil and Twelve Monkeys were more paranoid projections of possible futures, The Zero Theorem serves, on the surface, more as a tragic satire of the present state of the world, with our near complete surrender to the Surveillance State, our paradoxical isolation while interconnected to the world though our technology, and the substitution of chaotic mass market media distractions for the search for existential meaning. At the same time, however, it serves as a critique of asceticism as a response to this brave new world. The ultimate disconnect from the realistic (albeit satirically exaggerated) narrative to the fantastical conclusion isn’t something new for a Gilliam film — see the ending of Brazil (the theatrical cut does not exist in this dojo) — and given the surreal elements of the film’s reality, this conclusion, while bleak, is right in line with the themes Gilliam lays out along the way. I said “ostensibly” earlier because rather than being the strict narrative described above, the film is really most thoroughly enjoyed (for me anyway) as an allegory for finding meaning in life while dealing with death and dying. Nearly every single aspect of the story, nearly every single image on the screen, nearly every single character interaction, can be read as symbolic representations of Qohen’s struggle with, and ultimate acceptance of, dying alone in a meaningless universe. It’s a story that works in elements of existential classics like The Myth of Sisyphus, Nausea, and Ecclesiastes. In fact, when Qohen’s full name is run together, it practically becomes Qoheleth, which is Hebrew for Ecclesiastes (in Greek). To recap, Ecclesiastes which tells the story of Koheleth as he investigates the meaning of life and ultimately proclaims the actions of mankind to be inherently hevel (vain, futile, meaningless, transitory, etc.) and that one should enjoy the basic pleasures of life like eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s work — all things Qohen has given up on as he moves further and further away from living his life and instead waiting for that mysterious phone call. While Ecclesiastes is usually translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher,” the original Hebrew meaning of Qoheleth is “Gatherer,” “Assembler,” or “Collector” — which is a literal description of Qohen’s work: “crunching entities.” Crunching entities essentially translates to the process of creating computer models packaging information that represents individual lives — entities — into a visual expression of a successful lifestyle – a six-sided box that can ultimately be slotted into the theoretical construct that is, we discover, the Zero Theorem. Whew, again! Qohen is a mathematical genius, as evidenced by the almost after-thought mention that he’s finished the Transfinite Paradox project, which a quick Google search verified is something of a real thing and made my eyes cross just trying to grasp the definition, much less the actual math involved. However he is relegated to being a cog in the machine of Mancom — the most talented cog, but a cog nonetheless. But there is no evidence to suggest that this is something that the system overtly did to him. By his own admission, he never saw himself as special, despite his gifts. He indulged in drugs, alcohol, and sex to dull his senses, to stifle his feelings of inconsequentiality. He was in love; he was married; he was divorced. He is now alone. This is an element of his character that is glossed over in most of the commentary I’ve read about the film so far. Qohen is not an “everyman” in the typical sense; he’s actually quite different from everyone around him. He’s not a Sam Lowry in search of his Brazil. He’s a person who, contrary to the world around him, has withdrawn into physical isolation as well as spiritual, emotional, and sociological isolation by choice — although given his mental state, choice is a loaded word. He suffered a break with reality years before when he received a call that not only woke him from sleep, but from his haze. The voice on the phone asked his name and he felt a “yawning maw of power” and a “rush of joy” and felt that if he only answered “Yes” then the voice would tell him the meaning of life, his special calling, his reason for being. But he dropped the phone and was disconnected from everything. This description is almost exactly that recorded by mystics when receiving a religious epiphany but with an absurdist downer ending. But Qohen never had a chance, really. He never looked inside for meaning. Meaning and happiness were external things that he waited for, rather than searched out, through his entire life. It’s a pretty simple message, really. Handled in a more direct, simplistic way, The Zero Theorem might not add up to the sum of its parts, but Gilliam and Rushin have layered in meanings and symbols throughout Qohen’s world. It’s a loud world; an ongoing sensory assault that drives people into their own technological isolation while still interacting with one another. The party that Qohen attends in a desperate attempt to meet with Management and get permission to work from home is a microcosm of the outside world. Blaring music overwhelms conversation — if there were any — while people dance together, but to their own individual soundtracks piped through ear buds and iPods. There’s even a glimpse of “smokers” who have gone beyond even today’s e-cigs to gleefully puff on imaginary cigarettes. It’s a very communal isolation and with his lack of technological isolation, Qohen finds himself even more alone in the crowd (despite constantly referring to himself as ‘we’). Everything about the design of the character actually sets him apart from the world around him, stripping him down to an aesthetic austerity that matches his home, a fire-damaged church. He doesn’t wear the garish clothes that everyone else does, dressing in black (which serves to, as Bainsley later describes, “maximize brain, minimize body”), underclothes, pajamas (that recall the striped uniforms of concentration camp internees), or nothing at all. The absence of hair also marks him as different, without adornment. His asceticism extends to the silent darkness of his home. The church is adorned with faded faces of saints, the light filtered through stained glass, the door sealed with a variety of locks. By the time Qohen reaches the party we are fully entrenched in both his interior and exterior worlds. The party is the lynchpin of the film, with the events following either being “real” and merely allegorical or “fantasy” and purely inside his mind. It’s at the party, after he meets Bainsley and has his meeting with Management (where his request to work from home is denied and he is judged “quite insane”), that Qohen chokes on a piece of candy and is either saved by Bainsley, or dies, depending on how you want to interpret the events. Whether his death is actual or a near experience, from this point on the film subtly changes. While he is choking, Management reappears as if by magic and asks “What is the meaning of life Mr. Leth? So close to its end and still no answers. You know, I have a special project for you that could prove to be mutually beneficial. There’s not a lot of time. Not much time at all…” At this point, Bainsley busts in, Heimlich’s him and he coughs up the candy that was killing him. A rat then scurries out and snatches the candy away (in what will become a recurring motif as the film continues). In the meantime, Management has disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared. Qohen ducks into a bathroom to recuperate and our perspective switches to a security camera view, watching him from above and behind. Bainsley then busts in (again) and without hesitation or modesty sits on the toilet and begins to use the bathroom, prompting Qohen to flee into the hallway, where Bainsley follows, flirting, asking if he has a mouse in his pocket (a reference to his third person way of speaking). As he recoils again, the perspective switches again to the security camera POV. This toilet scene, while brief, drives home a point, confronting Qohen with the most basic of bodily functions and then compounding it with lust. In a matter of moments, he is face to face with the opposite of the mind and asceticism. And his response is to run. In addition, either Management has security cameras everywhere, even in an abandoned house where a party is being held (not unheard of in a Terry Gilliam film, after all), or we are on the other side of life now and the security camera POV is symbolic of the control portion of Qohen’s mind separating out and observing his decline and rejection of the physical as represented by Bainsley. The next two sequences introduce Qohen to the Zero Theorem and chronicle his work on the project. There are two important things to note with this portion of the film. First, the gigantic mainframe computer of Mancom, the machine designed to process all of the entities that are crunched and calculate the Zero Theorem is named “The Neural Net Mancive” which can either be taken figuratively or can also imply that we are inside of Qohen’s head at this point and everything to come is an aspect of his dying mind. It works either way, really. Second, as time passes and Qohen works on the Zed-T, his anxious scrambling for every phone call takes on a more ominous and disturbing aspect. The call he could never miss has now become the call of Mancom; the call of the upload schedule. In the absence of choosing a meaning, he has had a meaning forced upon him without even realizing or struggling against it. Whereas before the party, his neurosis about “the call” was separated from his work, by getting what he asked for — the ability to work at home and not potentially miss his call — the call itself has been subsumed into the monotony and routine of the job. In a dark way, the call has arrived and his meaning is now to calculate the Zero Theorem. When he can no longer deal with the nearly inevitable failure of his calculations, Qohen breaks out a computerized therapist, Dr. Shrink-Rom (Tilda Swinton). The therapy, unbeknownst to him, is not designed to help him, but to merely identify and maintain his pathology. It’s essentially a self-contained self-help device programmed to keep him from acknowledging the insanity of his obsession with the call and stay focused on working out the Zero Theorem. The problem is that the thing Qohen fears more than anything is nothing; the meaningless that the Zed-T is designed to prove is anathema to the only thing that really keeps him going; his need for meaning. It is at this point that we are presented with a scene so loaded with meaning that it demands examination. Qohen is dreaming of the collapse of the universe again. It seems like every time he sleeps this is his dream. The calls from Mancom are his alarm clock. He is stuck in a cycle of death imagery and work demands — and when your work demands are demanding proof that life is meaningless, this isn’t an unreasonable cycle of events. After waking from one of these dreams, Qohen rises from bed and contemplates a stained glass image in his darkened church. While lighting candles before the image is reminded of Bainsley asking him at the party if he was alone. His reply: “We are generally everywhere alone.” There’s a sadness here that Waltz is able to express effortlessly. The stained glass image is Saint Sebastian — not the pop culture version of Saint Sebastian as gay iconography, but the traditional, practically medieval Saint Sebastian; symbolic of stoic martyrdom. He was also not killed by the traditionally depicted piercing with arrows; he was rescued and healed by Irene of Rome before later being beaten to death for speaking out against Diocletian. Because of this he is sometimes referred to as the saint who was martyred twice — which sounds decidedly familiar to what I’m discussing here with Qohen, who either dies or almost dies at the party before finally passing away at the end. If he is dying, his dying mind refuses to embrace nothingness — despite dreaming constantly of the swirling black hole that symbolizes the Big Crunch and the death of all Space Time — while subconsciously embodying the nihilistic depression that can accompany the realization that there is no inherent meaning to life. What more devastating realization can come to a man of faith? As if to combat that singular point, Bainsley and Bob are then reintroduced to our story. In a straight narrative, their roles are clear. Bainsley is there as a call girl, whose role is to get Qohen out of his funk and back to work on the Theorem. Bob is there to help him get the work done beyond what he thought were his limits. Both serve to reconnect Qohen with life, one through a strange sexless sexuality (she only does cyber, no real sex), and the other with the passions of youth (food, lust, rebellion). However when we look at their roles from this point on as aspects of Qohen’s own mind, the film begins unpacking a number of thematic elements that tie directly to the conflict between desiring meaning from external forces and accepting that there is no objective meaning to life outside of what we create for ourselves. First, Bainsley, who awakens Qohen from a dream of the end of the universe. The Bainsley that we get at this point is a walking sexual fantasy, dressed in her latex nurse’s outfit and pink wig; she embodies carnality while still maintaining an almost cartoonlike sense of whimsy. A lot of this is down to the performance of Mélanie Thierry who brings an earthy sexuality to the role. She’s provocative, but smart and has more going on beneath the surface than one might suspect at first. The screen lights up whenever she appears. Symbolically, her character offers even more complex meanings, being a delicate balance of non-sexual sexuality. Her requirement that the only intimacy they can share be a virtual intimacy in a cyber-world of her own design is telling both psychologically for the character and thematically — whether Qohen is really interacting with her or if she is an aspect of his own mind, clinging to life. The paradise she constructs for him is a beautiful beach, frozen in time with a sun that never sets, where he is healthy, has hair, and they can kiss and frolic in the surf to their heart’s content. It’s entirely clean and safe, where they (he) can breathe again with no pressures, no darkness, no death. All the meaning he could ever ask for is here… but it is virtual. Here in this frozen moment, he is willing to abandon the Theorem and just be with Bainsley. It’s a turning point for Qohen as he finally realizes that meaning is what he makes of it. And that’s a problem. Her job, ostensibly, is to give him the motivation to get back to work rather than to abandon the work and “live” his life. There’s a childlike desperation in his desire for this end. He’s grasping at straws and clinging to life. Is there any clearer metaphor than the sun that never sets, forever resting on the horizon? So Bainsley has to go. Bob serves a similar purpose as Bainsley, only his role is to reconnect Qohen with his non-carnal physicality. The first thing that Bob does when arriving at the church is demand pizza. And when that pizza is delivered by a sexy pizza delivery girl, Bob is undone. He embodies all of the youthful energies that Qohen has long since laid to rest; the boy is the antithesis of Qohen’s asceticism. Again, if this is a straight narrative, Bob serves this purpose as well, providing a link between Qohen and his senses, but if Qohen is dying, Bob’s appearance has even more levels of complexity. Bob becomes the part of Qohen that died long ago. He recalls enjoying food, but can’t recall what food he enjoyed. As he dies he is being confronted with the experiences and joys he has long since abandoned, as well as the elasticity of mind to accept the idea that life is meaningless but invested with meaning at the same time. There a couple of lines of dialogue between Qohen and Bob that reinforce their connection. The first is after Bob finds himself enthralled by the breasts of the pizza delivery girl and asks if she was looking at him funny. Qohen’s reply, “We have grown accustomed to people looking at us funny” is at once sarcastic but also reflective. Bob is symbolic of Qohen before he had given up on social interactions and accepted his role as an outsider. The second moment occurs after Bainsley finally returns and suggests that she and Qohen can escape together; but it’s too late. Qohen has already come to terms with his state and she leaves the church of his mind. In the scene immediately following this, Qohen and Bob leave the church to take a walk and as the camera pulls up and back we discover that the church shares a structure with a sex shop where a customer is being carted out on a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. The pizza-delivery girl is there, in the crowd, watching this happen. While sitting on a park bench (around which children dressed as skeletons for Halloween run and play — death in the afternoon?) Bob shares the fact that he’s only fifteen and is already bored with life. Bob continues that line of thought with, “Think about what’ll happen when I’m as old as you.” This exchange makes plain that Qohen’s asceticism is less a metaphysical response to the encroaching world around him and more a reflection of the psychological issues that drove him to feel like a cog in the machine, pushing his withdrawal from life. This moment serves as a trigger for Qohen to make his final step toward the acceptance that meaning is a choice as he finally abandons speaking in the third person — he is no longer fragmented, but has reconciled his identity with both the psycho-sexual aspects represented by Bainsley and the youthful rebelliousness of Bob. Unfortunately, this also means the death of Bob, much as the rejection of Bainsley meant she would no longer be seen again in the film. This reconciliation means the death of youth and, as we see, the abandonment of physicality overall as Qohen refuses to run away with Bainsley. It’s a tragically romantic moment, when he says no to her suggestion that they leave, and one that is difficult to justify from a narrative perspective — without calling on direct references to Brazil, where the escape into a blissful life away from society and responsibility is ultimately a fantasy. Here, Qohen painfully refuses to accept that fantasy. Here, Qohen accepts death on its own terms, acknowledging that while he has always been alone, he has not been lonely. And this is an important point. Isolation is not necessarily a punishment. Cloistering oneself away from the world is not necessarily an act of madness. Although that’s not normally how it is received by the outside world. Qohen’s problem all along has been that being alone was not enough. He didn’t focus on himself and creating a meaning for his life. Instead, he used the isolation as a way to hide. He wasn’t lonely, but he wasn’t introspective either. In describing Qohen as a man of faith, as Gilliam has done in interviews, it’s a very different kind of faith than that which most viewers might relate. It’s the faith of the Mystic waiting alone for that lightning bolt of revelation in a sea of superficial religious experience that is more about marketing techniques and social relationships. The Church of Batman the Redeemer is the most obvious example of Gilliam’s parodying of pop-religion in the film, but it’s not in service to the older belief systems of traditional religion; the prominence of the Jesus statue with a security camera for a head makes clear where his sympathies lie. People forget that mystics are very often seen as madmen by the mainstream of religious thought. So Qohen can be seen as representing the existential mystical experience — the realization that in a universe without meaning, we are all alone but don’t have to be lonely. We simply need to live our lives and be happy with that. And if we have to withdraw from others from time to time, we can’t forget to reconnect eventually. As Management says in the concluding moments of the film, after Qohen has made contact with his soul, died again in the process, and finds himself in the Neural Net, “You persisted in believing that a phone call could give your life meaning. You waited and waited for that call and as a result you’ve lead a meaningless life.” And he’s right. There’s no going back and fixing it now. Qohen dies accepting the fact that he wasted his life waiting for meaning to be given to him, but in accepting this this film ends with a glimmer of hope in the hopelessness. When he tears down the Neural Net and peacefully falls into the oblivion of Space Time’s inevitable collapse, Qohen is redeemed (without Batman) and finds himself in the paradise that Bainsley had crafted for him. He is alone this time, hairless and naked, but instead of playing in a never-ending dusk, he allows the sun to set on his own terms. His life may have had no meaning, but he gives meaning to his death by claiming it for himself. It’s heartbreaking and tragic and will probably rub most viewers the wrong way. But it doesn’t soft-sell Qohen’s situation or try to make us all feel better about things. If you, as a viewer need to feel comforted, at least you get Bainsley’s voice softly calling to him as the bittersweet interpretation of “Creep” by Karen Souza plays out over the credits. If that’s the best we can hope for from death, it’s enough. The Zero Theorem is available now on VOD and will be in US theaters on September 19. An Existential Mystical Experience: The Zero Theorem (2013)4.5Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 3 Responses Serdar (GenjiPress) August 27, 2014 Reading the plot of the movie reminded me, however distantly, of the recently-republished novel by the Brothers Strugatsky, “Definitely Maybe”, also about a reclusive genius whose work is “aided” (distracted?) by people sent into his apartment as he gnaws on a problem of extreme intractability. But it seems like “Zero Theorem” is anything but a clone of that, and so I’m looking forward all the more to watching it based on this. Log in to Reply George August 30, 2014 I found it surprisingly enjoyable, and the ending was excellent and well considered. Log in to Reply 12 Monkeys (1995) - Psycho Drive-In November 7, 2017 […] of a satirical dystopian trilogy of films beginning with Brazil and ending with last year’s Zero Theorem, but whether he intended to make a set of films that covered similar themes or if he just (as his […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.