The James Clayton Column: Sci-fi dread and the meaning of life

With Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem out today, James ponders the meaning of life and the movies...

In The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays Qohen Leth – a hairless and reclusive computer programmer who lives in his pyjamas in a cavernous ancient cathedral in a dystopian future. This sounds a bit like a midlife crisis. In fact it is a whole life crisis and, for Qohen, that existential despair isn’t just a pastime – it’s his job. The main protagonists search for the meaning of life forms the narrative core of Terry Gilliam’s new film.

Anyone who’s ever searched for the meaning of life will be able to tell you that it’s a terrible, soul-destroying business unless it’s turned into a Monty Python movie. It’s therefore a huge relief to know that Gilliam is handling this headspinning sci-fi feature. The quest for lucid meaning may hurt our heads and souls but at least we’ll experience some hilarious absurdity, some surrealism and hyper-imagination during the journey the way. At least, I hope we will. Find the fish.

Returning to Waltz’s philosophical wondering/wandering (we’ve hit the Homophone Singularity!), the ‘discover the secret of life’ objective is overseen by a shadowy figure known as “Management”. Qohen is tasked to tackle the “Zero Theorem” – a mathematical formula which, when solved, may reveal the grand truths about life, the universe, the universe’s destruction, everything, nothing or everything and nothing because everything and nothing are one and the same. Maybe it’s a Zen Buddhist koan. Alternatively, maybe Eric Idle is going to spring out at a certain critical point and sing The Meaning Of Life – the title theme from the aforementioned Monty Python sketch compilation film. Ideally this will be accompanied by Terry Gilliam animations. 

Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life didn’t deliver what its title promised. At least, I’m still not sure what the meaning of life is having watched the film, though I do now believe that every sperm is sacred. Coming back up to date to the hot-off-the-press picture I haven’t seen yet, I don’t know if The Zero Theorem will actually work it out or just work as a stimulating work out around that working out.

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We’ll just have to go and see it at the cinema and experience its mysteries, eagerly hoping that in Qohen’s own ontological search we find some grand enlightenment for ourselves. I’m looking forward to doing this but, nevertheless, in spite of all my enthusiasm and excitement, The Zero Theorem is also an unnerving proposition. On top of the deep and profound dread – “What is life all about?” – inherent in the premise, I’m also feeling familiar disturbances in my life forces as I approach the movie.

The Zero Theorem is another future-set science fiction film offering foreboding impressions of times to come. I love the sci-fi genre but, by the ‘Ping!’ of the Machine that Goes ‘Ping!’, it troubles me at times. In fact, quite often it flat out terrifies me and then like a slave to anxiety I come back for more and inject more and more of these grim visions into my sensory organs because I’m an insatiable fear junkie with a fetishistic affection for the genre trappings. If I can’t find the fish, I can guarantee that I will find a spaceship, some form of advanced tech or a dystopian sociopolitical system.

(More on that last one later. In my own search for grander meaning I’ve flagged that and noted it as “may be important” with gratuitous question marks and a doodle of Donald Sutherland’s Cornelius Snow from The Hunger Games. It’s a crude likeness and you would only know it was President Snow from The Hunger Games if I told you it was. Perhaps, similarly, we’ll only know the meaning of life when someone or something tells us that it is exactly ‘that’, though who or what that absolute authority is is another mystery in itself. Regardless, because I’m not satisfied with the President Snow sketch as an illustrative annotation I’ve drawn 1984’s Big Brother though he looks more like Monty Python‘s Mr Gumby. I now realise that this digression has gone too far and distracted me from the main point and my search for existential meaning. My apologies. I will now return to the epic-albeit-possibly-futile endeavour.) 

For the most part, the future as depicted in movies is going to be a scary place – physically, mentally and metaphysically. For sure, there are genre films that present optimistic speculative visions but I think it’s reasonable to state that the prevailing tendency of science fiction blockbusters inclines towards pessimism and the propagation of cautionary tales.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and it doesn’t stop the movies from being entertaining and prevent audience enjoyment. Still, it does encourage an anxious and apprehensive outlook on both the future and the now as it feeds eager consumers (fear junkies) a constant diet of projected fears – many of which may be unnecessary fears.

A long time ago in several galaxies far, far away I received wisdom from a couple of science fiction fantasies. One taught me that “Fear is the mind killer”. Another explained that “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”. These philosophical aphorisms make salient points as I go through the motions of life and try to find meaning in existence and in the wider Universe (thought – maybe the Meaning of Life rests with Yoda in the Dagobah swamp). Reflecting on my love of the sci-fi genre, I’m beginning to wonder if all this fear isn’t healthy and if my affection for a pop-cultural category is skewering my own existential odyssey rather than assisting it.

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Of course, looking on the positive side, if we take films as prescient pictures of the upcoming future there’s potential to alter the projected timelines and change upcoming realities before they actually happen. There’s comfort in the idea that movies act as an early warning system in which we can explore what may come and, armed with conscious awareness and resolve to rewrite future-history, ensure that disaster doesn’t occur further down the line. Perhaps that’s the meaning or, rather, purpose of life. Let’s call this the ‘Kyle Reese Theorem’ and really run with the galvanised desire to terminate expected terror before it has chance to build up into an apocalyptic nightmare and the scourge of Earthly humanity. 

That eases my mind, as does the fact that the forecast catastrophes are currently fiction. The myriad morbid realities aren’t real in the world of the present day so we don’t need to worry about them too much right now. Obviously we should be wary and progressively work to prevent prophesied tragedies but they are not overshadowing everything and destroying us in our imminent actuality – at least, they aren’t once we’ve left the cinema auditorium.

There are pressing environmental problems but a more extreme scenario along the lines of, say, Silent Running, Soylent Green or WALL·E hasn’t yet come true. The human race may arguably be regressing but we’re relatively far from the realisation of an Earth that looks like Idiocracy, Planet Of The Apes or Mad Max with civilisation as we know it effectively ending. The rise of antagonistic artificial intelligences and our subsequent subjugation as depicted in The Matrix and The Terminator series hasn’t happened yet either.

(Of course, it’s quite possible that it has happened and that we’re actually ‘living’ in a simulated reality. If so, the meaning of life is ‘you are a battery powering sentient machines’ and that’s bleak. We will swallow the blue pill and get back to trying to find the point – a more palatable point.) 

Tremendous fear is unnecessary because these futures have yet to come to pass and, if we’re that frightened, we can stitch-in-time-and-save-nine-billion to cancel the apocalypse and subvert the dreary post-apocalypse in advance. We have reassuring distance from the future worlds of film but there’s an exception, however, in the sci-fi pictures that re-represent the contemporary real world of today and poignantly mirror our own actuality in speculative fiction plots.

There are subtextual subtleties all around you if you look closely enough but I’m talking specifically about the more explicit, allegorical sci-fi stories that grab spectators and force them to face the horrors of the here-and-now. At least, they do if audiences are aware and really actively read the film to realise that the fantastical entertainment work before them is a profound portrait that relates to their own life and surrounding reality.

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Returning to that over-annotated earlier note I promised I’d come back to – though I didn’t say “I’ll be back” and, thus, missed an opportunity to reference The Terminator, dammit – dystopian sociopolitical systems are a factual existent feature in our lives right now. Films and books like The Hunger Games, THX 1138, Fahrenheit 451, V For Vendetta and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (a.k.a. 1984½) are just a few of many fictional works that present oppressive governmental and (anti)cultural structures but, really, they are dramatic, creatively embellished meditations on the organisation of our own mundane world.

All these souls are controlled and held captive within inhuman systems – whether they be political, social, economic, bureaucratic or religious – that suppress freedom of thought and individual freewill. They remain slaves within these artificial structures because of fear (the path to the Dark Side) of reprisals should they not conform. Either that or because they complicitly or unconsciously support the system through their own ignorance or because they’ve been indoctrinated and are numbed by propaganda, social conditioning, mind-altering substances and products and/or superficial appeasements of the ‘bread and circuses and popcorn entertainment’ kind. That’s not just the characters in the movies – that’s us in the real world we live in, though is this really living? Surely there’s got to be more to life if, indeed, life has any meaning at all.

Then we turn to The Zero Theorem and see Qohen in his own self-supported prison compelled by ‘Management’ to find the meaning of life within oppressive artificial structures and confines. Just like us. We are Qohen. Qohen is us. That sounds like a Zen Buddhist koan to me. Ah, nirvana. And the Machine that goes ‘Ping!’ goes ‘Ping!’

I think I may have arrived at the Meaning of Life.

James Clayton is not looking for the meaning of life – he’s looking for a life of meaning. Wow, that’s deep. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

You can read James’ last column here.

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