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The Zero Theorem is a dystopian science fiction film by director Terry Gilliam who imagines a technicolor world in which people work long hours at apparently meaningless tasks for snooping corporate overlords, are constantly using their personal electronic devices at parties, and feel as if they are insignificant cogs in the great machine. The titular theorem and the black hole that appears throughout the film are allegories for this pointless existence, which can still somehow be monetized by the vague but threatening corporation behind it all, Mancom. Really, The Zero Theorem is a movie packed so densely with allegory that there's little room for plot or character, much to its detriment.

The story centers around Qohen, which is pronounced exactly like "Cohen" and presumably spelled differently so that Qohen's helmet-coiffed boss Joby can continually mispronounce it as "Quinn." Qohen is an odd spot of affectless darkness in Gilliam's near-future London, who does not believe in eating food with flavors, does not like being touched, has no friends, and inexplicably speaks in the royal "we," much to the annoyance of all the other characters. He lives in a fire-gutted church, which is the only drab thing in the otherwise dazzling world. To the film's disadvantage, it spends the bulk of the time in this church once Qohen wrestles his company into allowing him to work from home.

Qohen explains that prior to the events of the film, in the midst of a moment of supreme existential angst, he received a phone call. A phone call he was certain would tell him the purpose of his meaningless existence. In his excitement, he accidentally disconnected his phone before the person on the other end could speak. This is why Qohen is now so desperate to work from home; he’s waiting for the call back that will finally tell him the meaning of his life. He is allowed to do so by the mysterious Management, played by Matt Damon in an array of absolutely fabulous suits, in exchange for working on the Zero Theorem. This theorem will prove that everything equals nothing, and nothingness is Qohen's greatest fear. Qohen spends the rest of the film working on the theorem as Management continually demands progress on strict deadlines, despite the fact that the problem becomes increasingly complex. As he slowly is driven mad by the work, he's befriended by Bob, Management's son, and Bainsley, who is probably best described as a manic pixie dream porn star.

Bob, as the quasi-rebellious son, presents a voice that is debatably counter to the desires of Management. Bainsley, on the other hand, is apparently in the employ of management and exists to keep Qohen working. When falling in love with her results in Qohen showing a hint of rebelliousness, he is summarily shut out of her virtual reality playground, a tropical paradise that's reached via suits that appear to have been designed for demented Christmas elves. But it turns out that Bainsley has fallen in something with Qohen as well ("You need me and I need to be needed so bad," she tells him tearfully) because of course she has, just in time for him to turn her down and thus banish the only human female character from the movie.

The end of the film sees Qohen quite literally searching for his own soul only to discover that he is part of the vast machine that runs his company, which in turn reveals the supermassive black hole that has stood in for Qohen's fear of nothingness the entire film. What follows is increasingly symbolic and unfortunately anti-climactic.

While Terry Gilliam calls this film the last in a pseudo-trilogy of dystopian movies, there isn't anything that feels particularly dystopian about it. The main character's struggle is internal, rather than against the nonsensical system that surrounds him. His angst is, of course worsened by the lack of purpose in the corporate-run life that he leads, but it is others in the film, chiefly Bob and Bainsley, who are concerned with fighting the system, while Qohen is focused entirely inward. It could be argued that Qohen is already as empty as the rest of the system because he is part of it, and what makes Qohen miserable is Qohen himself, not the machinations of Mancom. Ultimately, the world of The Zero Theorem is a caricature of modern, middle class life in any Western nation, with a healthy dose of Terry Gilliam's trademark aesthetic of the bizarre. It's not really a dystopia unless you think life as a white-collar wage slave is particularly dystopian.

Dystopian or no, what gives the film its charm is the aesthetic environment that Gilliam builds, and the characters (or what passes for them) are at their best when they're in the candy-colored, hectic environs, doing tasks that don't quite make sense. There's a beautiful moment at the beginning of the film when we see an animated billboard advertising the Church of Batman the Redeemer. (Now there's a church we could all get behind!) For a moment there is hope that will be the tone of the whole film, something as bizarre and cheeky as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, though that is sadly not to be.

Visually, Gilliam's commentary on consumerism, isolation, and the way society grinds people down are evident in full force and fine form. There are also some lovely aesthetic potshots taken at surveillance culture and the inherent voyeurism of it; when Qohen begins working from home, Management places surveillance cameras all throughout the church. One camera is put in place of the head of Christ on a crucifix. Also present are pointed visual comments on modern technologies such as cell phones and iPads and the isolation some argue is inherent to them, with people wearing earphones and playing with touchpads at parties and sex—reduced to something entirely cartoonish—only existing via the internet. But while the technology surrounding Qohen is an isolating factor for him—and there's something almost poignant about the source of his angst being a dropped call—Qohen embraces this isolation.

The movie's theme is delivered beautifully at the end by Management when he tells Qohen, "You've waited and waited for that call, and as a result you've led a meaningless life." The solution offered seems to be to embrace the meaninglessness and live, but the visual metaphor is so rich that it could really be argued any number of ways, and will probably mean something different to everyone who watches it. When the visual ties strongly to dialog that isn't overwritten, the effect is bizarre and powerful because of the inherent weirdness. Which is to say that this film is at its strongest when Terry Gilliam is being the best of all possible Terry Gilliams and luring us further down the rabbit hole.

Unfortunately, too often the visual punchiness is obfuscated by a script weighed down by opaque dialog, which comes across as the sort of philosophizing one might expect to hear in a college dorm when a joint's getting passed around. There is nothing in the slightest bit wrong with having a film dense with allegory and philosophy. But at some point a critical density is reached and The Zero Theorem, like the supermassive black hole of Qohen's nightmares, collapses in on itself, and both plot and characters are lost past the event horizon.

The treatment of both plot and characters is genuinely frustrating, considering the character-driven power in both of Gilliam's previous "dystopian" films (Twelve Monkeys and Brazil). Qohen, played by Christoph Waltz, is particularly charmless as a hero. His existential angst and isolation might be sympathetic if he were slightly less creepy. Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Joby (David Thewlis) are both far more animated than the lifeless Qohen, but are just as often bogged down by their task of making certain that the audience knows there is an important philosophical point being made.

Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) has the most spark out of the main cast, and that is sadly wasted on a character that seems torn from the pages of a mid-life crisis literary novel. (Trope 19: the prostitute in whose vagina the protagonist finds meaning before abandoning her once she's fallen in love with him.) Bainsley from her inception is completely defined by men ("My daddy used to buy me ugly dresses to keep the boys away, but that just made me want to get naked.") and her 'daddy issues' are a motivator and punchline for most of the rest of her appearance in the film. Hopefully, the sex kitten antics of the character were meant to be cringe-inducing rather than titillating, because that is certainly how they come across.

Other than the computer program "therapist" (played by Tilda Swinton), the only other female character in the movie with a speaking role is a pizza girl, who delivers a box emblazoned with "more than a pizza!" Bob openly ogles her, in parallel to Qohen's habit of staring at Bainsley, which even she finds a bit creepy at first. While there might be some slight self-actualization in the way both women call attention to this creepiness, ("Why are you staring at me?") as a defense it seems thin and disconcerting. Though with only two women in the film, perhaps the male characters can't be blamed for treating them like foreign curiosities.

Bainsley's stated purpose is to "fix" Qohen so that he can continue working on the theorem, which she does do, though presumably at the end she is the only one who escapes by packing everything she owns into a van and driving off to an unknown destiny. But there is something intensely hollow about the end of the film, when Qohen takes over Bainsley's virtual reality safe space. Her absence is noted when he picks up her discarded bikini top, which he then tosses aside before wading out into the water in seeming contentment.

Ultimately, The Zero Theorem is a film with a lot of moving parts that can be read in quite a few ways. The first viewing generally seems to result in a feeling of confusion and unease, which is the norm for Terry Gilliam films. A second viewing leads to a solid opinion, as it provides an opportunity to better track the threads of the plot, such as they are, and the journeys of the characters, such as they are. Whether this solid opinion ends up positive or negative is up to the individual, though perhaps could be answered by consideration of the fictional theorem that drives the allegory.

The zero theorem is supposedly a complex equation (proof? theory?) that will equal zero and thus prove that everything is equal to nothing. It's mathematics being lovingly imagined and explained by people who do not understand mathematics to viewers whom they must hope also don't understand mathematics. There is even confusion internal to the film as to whether it is a mathematical proof built so that all its component parts are equal to zero or a proof of the Big Crunch theory of how the universe will one day contract into a single dimensionless point and thus end. The two concepts are in fact very different, and unless one is overly concerned with the fate of the universe in a future so distant human minds cannot actually comprehend the number of years involved, the latter is a matter more for academic inquiry than existential robe-rending.

Perhaps this confusion of math and physics and philosophy is a decent metaphor for the muddle of the film, which never seems to get around to deciding quite what it wants to be. A meditation on nihilism or endless wittering at a problem that isn't actually a problem? Neither of those are the stuff of an arresting 107 minutes, and there's only so much density Gilliam's buoyant and beautiful visual madness can withstand.

Rachael Acks is a writer, geologist, and dapper sir. She's written for Six to Start and been published in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and more. Rachael lives in Houston with her two furry little bastards, where she twirls her mustache, watches movies, and bikes. For more information, see her website.

Alex Acks is a geologist and writer. In addition to their steampunk series from Musa Publishing, they've had short stories in Penumbra, Waylines, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Alex lives in Houston (where they bicycle at least 100 miles per week) with their husband and their two furry little bastards. More information can be found on their website.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
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In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
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