Movie Review: The Zero Theorem

Movie Review: The Zero Theorem

Exploring life's big questions

By Mark HadleyWednesday 14 May 2014MoviesReading Time: 4 minutes

Terry Gilliam is a quirky filmmaker who has taken the absurdist humour he developed as a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to bizarre extremes. But, as always, his latest production The Zero Theorem has a healthy question hiding under all the craziness.

An interesting approach to a well-worn question in 'The Zero Theorem'. 

The Zero Theorem begins with an image that might as well stand for the philosophy of the entire film: a man sitting naked on a stool in the derelict remains of a church watches a computer screen that displays a black hole devouring the universe. He is waiting for a terribly important telephone call that will somehow reveal his purpose in life, but each time the handset rings all he gets is telemarketing. How’s that for a picture of humanity’s plight? Welcome to the existential angst Terry Gilliam-style…

The man on the stool turns out to be Qohen Leth played by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz. He’s a brilliant computer programmer living in a Bladerunner-esque future. A few minutes in his company is enough to realise that Qohen’s constant worrying about the meaning of life has jolted a few screws loose. He perpetually speaks in the second person and nothing matters as much as this phone call he’s waiting to receive. The outside world provides little help. On his way to work we discover a grimy city plastered with sentient advertising; when he arrives, it’s to take up his position in a ridiculous production process that bears no connection with real life. But ‘Management’ (played by Matt Damon) has been watching Qohen and he/they /it believes this manic, over-worked drone will be able to solve their ultimate challenge: the Zero Theorem. This is a ridiculously difficult computer equation that has driven previous programmers mad, and it seems Qohen is next:

Qohen: “The Zero Theorem is unprovable – nothing adds up!”

Supervisor: “No, you’ve got it backward. Everything adds up, and it adds up to zero – that’s the point. What’s the point in anything?”

If Management can prove that ‘Zero equals 100%’, that everything we see and experience will inevitably add up to nothing, then it believes it will possess the ultimate economic advantage. In a world where everything amounts to chaos a clever company might make a lot of money selling people a new form of order. But Management starts undoing its own work when it provides Qohen with a lover and a friend to keep his mind on the task. Their nihilistic, deeply unstable employee begins to believe that there might be a point to living after all…

Hope 103.2 is proudly supported by

I’ve given much more of a plot line than I normally would because, true to form, The Zero Theorem is just as hard to follow as any other Terry Gilliam film. The director is clearly keenly aware of the pointlessness of some modern industries and the way they distract from the life’s more important questions. But Gilliam is also just as plainly convinced that there are no real meanings to be found, unless they’re the personal ones we manufacture in relationship with other people. It turns out that the telephone call Qohen is waiting for – his ‘religious experience’ if you like – is just a figment of his imagination. He’s similarly distressed to discover that his girlfriend is just one of Management’s ‘arrangements’ to keep him happy. But the conclusion of The Zero Theorem seems to be that even if life all adds up to nothing, there’s enough meaning to be found in just rejecting despair.

Like most quasi-atheistic justifications for life The Zero Theorem’s meaning is bleak and seems more of an assertion than a proof. Not even Qohen is convinced that this conclusion will actually bring happiness – “Why would anyone believe such a horrible thing?” he exclaims. But the real flaw in the film’s argument is the casual way it sweeps Christianity aside as an outdated structure as tottering as Qohen’s residence, or an expression of a popular mania on par with other current fascinations like the ‘Church of Batman the Redeemer’). But that’s to reason apart from any of the historical evidence for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. 

Christianity is unique in world religions in that it bases its beliefs on events that happened in real time – on a specific day, in a particular place. As historian Dr. John Dickson puts it, it’s as though this faith ‘puts its head on the chopping block’ and asks the world to take a swing. But to date no one has come close to disproving its accounts. Rather, the more historians look, the more reliable they become. More to the point, rather than slowly pass away, the testimony the Bible goes from strength to strength, continuing to change billions of lives for the better. Terry Gilliam can take all the swings he likes, but The Zero Theorem’s too fragile a weapon to offer Jesus any real threat.

Rating: M
Distributor: Sony

Release Date: May 15