Review of The Zero Theorem (2013)

Moving picture, 107 minutes

Terry Gilliam (director).

Seen in 2014.

A hard-living “entity cruncher” (hacker) in a noisily corporate world suffers a mental breakdown as he lifts a telephone receiver and hears his name spoken. Imagining that the caller is about to give his life purpose, he drops the receiver, disconnecting the call. Having thus found religion, he becomes an antisocial ascetic. Still good at his job, he is tasked with a theorem capable of negating his religious faith: In the entity business, computer-assisted formal logic appears to have developed to the point that it may be possible to construct an absolute mathematical proof of the validity of a dysteleological world view on the basis of Big Crunch theory.

A return to science fiction, billed by its GIFF blurb as taking over where Brazil (1985) leaves off. The script is by Pat Rushin, who claimed inspiration from “Ecclesiastes” (ca. 400–180 BCE).

The story was apparently written ca. 1999, which would explain the dated teledildonics, and adds an extra layer to the Brazil-esque uchronia. The final scenes appropriately present the possibility of an escape into madness, assisted here by mind-reading VR technology akin to the dumb plot twist at the end of Repo Men (2010), which also got its ideas from the late 1990s.

The script suggests that the zero theorem is direct evidence, of an obviously fantastical sort, for the Darwinian approach to the notion of purpose. As usual, this is conflated—at least by Management—with proximate hedonism and materialism of a different kind: proving the theorem is supposed to increase demand for Mancom products. As is also very common, the ending of the film conflates dysteleology with solipsism, showing Leth toying with the sun in his private universe, as if an existence without intrinsic purpose would be divine. This is the kind of bullshit plotting you get in Dan Brown novels, specifically Origin (2017).

The real consequences of the world view that has dominated science since the acceptance of evolution by natural selection are notably absent. I get the impression that Rushin just went looking for a MacGuffin that would drive the plot and remain elusive, and for some reason he chose the Darwinian perspective on life to be that MacGuffin. The apparently genre-savvy Leth waits a long time before trying to understand what he’s doing. I am happy to see scientifically motivated nihilism anywhere, but this is not a good use of the idea.

Starting thusly from a hollow script, Gilliam wastes his budget on stars and special effects, such as the silly mix of no-clip Minecraft and the Menger sponge that represents working on a theorem. Cameras spend far too little time out in the society that makes Brazil (1985) great. Here, it has begun to meld with the ubiquitous sex work of Idiocracy (2006): “not just pizza”. On that note, the female lead is another step down from the dull Valentina of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009): Mélanie Thierry is reduced by the sexist script and direction to a manic pixie dream girl, a satisfied topless prostitute, and finally a fallen woman whose redeeming, monandrous affection for the undeserving protagonist has her dressing conservatively as she accepts her feminine martyrdom. Her happiness is now dependent upon the man. The claustrophobic setting makes the shittiness of that role impossible to ignore.

References here: “Terry Gilliam” tag description, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018).

moving picture fiction