The Zero Theorem: The Final Piece of Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian Triptych

We examine The Zero Theorem and its role in the dystopia of Terry Gilliam's Orwellian Trilogy of Mentally Divergent Men.

Why do we do anything? Why did you decide to see this movie? Any movie? Why did you choose to go to this website?

Is it because we enjoy doing these things? Because we think that we’re supposed to do them? Or maybe, it’s something new we’re trying for the first time? Or perhaps we’ve been sent back in time, countlessly, to continue doing these things until we get it right, whether we realize it or not. The question of what all of this is amounting to is certainly a heavy one, and Terry Gilliam is certainly not one to shy away from a challenge, and The Zero Theorem is exactly that. But it’s also not only that—it’s in fact the final cipher and piece of the puzzle that he’s been telling for nearly 30 years now.

Dubbed by Gilliam as the final part in his “Orwellian triptych” dystopian satire trilogy that he started with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, The Zero Theorem is fortunately a rather satisfying bookend to what those previous efforts had to say. There’s a segment in 12 Monkeys where James Cole (Bruce Willis) is confronted by a man in the mental institution that he’s stuck in, who claims to be a “mentally divergent man.” A person who’s torn between two realities and only when he stops trying to escape to these other realities will he be “well.”

Each of the protagonists through Gilliam’s entries, Sam Lowry, James Cole, and Qohen Leth, are all mentally divergent men, who all seem to be crazy in one way or another due to them being “between worlds.” Brazil even visually plays with this concept by showing Lowry right against a mirror at one point, converging into himself as complications occur, constantly haunted by the divide between these realities. The film Casablanca is referenced and inexplicably lines from it are peppered throughout the movie afterwards, reflecting the simulacrum even more. It reaches the point where Lowry isn’t even sleeping or daydreaming in order to enter these fantasies; they begin invading his real life while he remains normal and powerless.

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Each of these entries pits these mentally divergent protagonists against the impossible as all three of these films are saying that the universe is pointless. It’s only finally in The Zero Theorem that it can be proven.

It’s easy to picture Qohen from the final installment silently working behind the scenes of Lowry and Cole, fact-checking their work, making sure everything ends the way it’s supposed to. Qohen’s work assures and confirms that Lowry can’t take down Central Services or that no matter how many times the 2035 doctors send someone to the past, they can’t stop the inevitable super-plague. None of this ultimately matters (as is confirmed in each film) in the end. It’s all about how far control can be taken and followed. It’s all about how crucial and important Big Brother is. But while all of these films may ultimately be amounting to this, there’s still much being said between them all, like our ability to escape from being controlled and how successful dreams are in this process, the importance of order, and technology’s control over us.

Coming on very strong with his Orwellian neo-society in The Zero Theorem (although it looks like it’s been filtered through Ron Howard’s The Grinch with everyone taking fashion advice from Whoville), Gilliam adapts Pat Rushin’s script into a wonderfully colorful view of the world with bonkers art direction and production design going on. It’s the most creative take on this everyday future since Minority Report, but it feels crossbred with The Wizard of Oz or Willy Wonka. This is a movie that Tim Burton would take every opportunity to direct, and he’d go about every opportunity incorrectly. Gilliam shows restraint, and it’s refreshing to see the normally hyper-bleak director playing with such a bright palette as fifty-foot lips speak ads to rainbow-colored pedestrians.

You can see the groundwork for this invasive idea being laid in Brazil with the expanses of road that are literally surrounded by billboards and advertising that are practically overlapping one another. Nothing has changed. Even the beginning of the film opens on a beautiful, electrified pulsating black hole, but it just as easily could be knowledge; information; the brain’s synapses working and firing away. Later on, Qohen’s door is covered with varying locks, much like the segments of the brain. Production design is seamlessly mirroring how the brain works, and you feel it surging through the film. While there’s a certain beauty in all of this, contrast it for example with the opening seconds of Brazil, which sees a television violently explode and kill an innocent pedestrian as evil music crescendos, commenting on how pointless the world is and how powerless everyone in it is.

This is a world where gun-toting soldiers literally burst into homes, a la Santa Claus, on Christmas Eve to kidnap families. Things aren’t much better in the second installment of Gilliam’s trilogy, wherein 12 Monkeys the world is a bleak, dark, abandoned mass of garbage. The air is toxic and full of germs with life getting so fragile that humanity is forced to live underground. The Zero Theorem is framed in vast wide shots to emphasize its barrenness whereas the earlier entries tend to close up on the clutter and chaos.

There’s also the fact that all of the films in Gilliam’s thematic trilogy take place during Christmas with festive artifacts strewn through them all. That this seemingly peaceful time acts as the most appropriate and needful moment for people to escape is certainly telling as well. All of the pomp and circumstance can’t hide the subjugation bubbling underneath.

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Elsewhere, the doctor’s office for checkups looks like a mad scientist’s playpen, and the film is filled with dazzling set-pieces like Joby’s (David Thewlis) party, the central hub where all the crunched entities end up, and Bainsley’s (Melanie Thierry) virtual reality downloads that are these crazy ethereal pieces of mind magic. 12 Monkeys seemed entirely satisfied in offering up a drab, bled-out world to its audience, whereas Brazil often wallowed in the like while using Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) imagination to give glimpses of the fantastical. What’s being said through the set design is that even though each film presents their hero in a claustrophobic setting getting pushed down by the Man—whether it’s the half-offices in Brazil, the prison cells in 12 Monkeys, or the workstations in The Zero Theorem—this last film has the most uplifting look to it. People for the most part feel free and are blissfully unaware of the forces around them, forces that are so abundantly clear to the public in the previous two films. What’s left is a feeling of optimistic hopelessness.

Yet none of this feels indulgent, but rather a heavy satirical push at how far gone the world has fallen. Although some of the more obvious themes of Management watching over everyone like a Big Brother knockoff are more transparent. That being said, this element does help thread the films together, and it wouldn’t really be an Orwellian dystopian satire trilogy without it. In Brazil (a film that by no coincidence was at one point titled 1984 ½), the Big Brother surrogate, Central Services, sets the whole film into motion when an error in the system (a bug, both figuratively and literally) occurs that needs to be corrected.

The entire film is just a detour down this rabbit hole of bureaucracy. There’s this idea of rebelling against an infallible system that has suddenly become fallible while all of this is essentially about restoring order and balance. Later on when Lowry is kicked out of his own home, he’s still made sure to get his receipt and that the right paperwork gets done. He says back to Central Services, “I’m a bit of a stickler for paperwork. Where would we be if we didn’t follow the proper procedures?”

Elsewhere when Lowry is working in Information Retrieval, his job moves at breakneck speed, seemingly without the time to ever stop moving. Life is one big Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk as Lowry is slowly transformed into a number (DZ-015) as Big Brother continues to control and program him where things like desks are so sparse, they must be shared between rooms through the wall. But maybe the idea of all of this paperwork and bureaucracy makes it seem like all of this has meaning when it actually doesn’t. That this is meaninglessness hiding behind rules, and order, and paperwork, just like hiding behind a theory or equation.

The same ideas are played with in 12 Monkeys, and once again the whole film is predicated on a mistake and what happens when science and bureaucracy mess up. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is told while institutionalized that he’s here “because of the system.” That if you’re not a consumer and contributing to higher society, then you’re mentally ill. Cole is literally sent through time to this state of confusion by the system, and so it’s only appropriate that at the end of everything, Cole figures out that his entire mission isn’t about stopping the super-virus at all; it’s about following orders. This time travel escapade has been steeped in rhetoric and doing what the Man tells you to do, because in the end, there’s no beating the virus or winning. It’s all just a mind fuck about being subservient, and it’s only when Cole breaks from the script that he ends up getting killed. The Zero Theorem however says that all of this order is irrelevant, because nothing means anything.

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Digging into the story here, we follow Qohen (not Quinn) Leth, played with manic energy by a near unrecognizable Christoph Waltz. Qohen works for ManCom, the Orwellian company du jour, and mindlessly programs away crunching entities. He often feels left out, alone, and displaced. It’s likely no coincidence that her refers to himself as “us” all the time, living in the illusion of company, and that this habit begins to subside once he’s begun to make “friends.”

He constantly tells people that his name is with “Q, no U;” he is himself an anomaly. He waxes on about feeling nothing and experiencing no joy as he does everything that he can with the hopes to receive a call from Management telling him what his purpose is—it will inevitably never come, and true enough he only seems to be at ease when he’s crunching entities, a process depicted much like a futuristic version of Sudoku, but using full-on equations rather than simple numbers. And if your playing field was the size of Texas, rather than a six-by-six grid.

It’s fascinating watching Qohen get lost in these entity crunching puzzles, continually needing to upload his work, being the slave to a deadline that never stops and begins to control him. A construct that looks eerily prescient of Lowry’s predicament in Information Retrieval where assignments are constantly shooting through his pneumatic tube at an impossible speed, and trying to outsmart or beat the system only makes it worse. It can’t be done. Great work is done showing Qohen slowly lose it when he forgets common everyday things from exhaustion, or as his arms begin to be covered in scratches and bandages from the neurotic, compulsive nervous scratching he’s begun to do.

Scenes show him constantly getting shoved out of frame or being pushed out of place. It’s not long until he’s eventually devolved into a near ape as he moans and swings a hammer around his surroundings, having lost all composure. It’s the same symbol of anarchy that’s beyond present in 12 Monkeys where references to the simians are everywhere.

Qohen begins to lose his grip more and more after beginning work on the supposedly unsolvable Zero Theorem, an equation that will prove the universe is all for nothing and that everything is an expendable waste. All of this seems like it might be a big game that Management is playing on him. Rendering him into a pawn as his upload times are made smaller and smaller, and plaguing him with distractions.

It’s ultimately not surprising when Bainsley shows up in a tight nurse’s outfit and pink wig for no discernible reason. He’s messing with Qohen and he doesn’t want him to finish. It’s also no coincidence that mice are continually shown throughout the film and focused on, putting Qohen amongst them, a lab mouse himself, only of a bigger size in a larger maze. Management even assigns Bob, his own son, to Qohen, seemingly just to complicate matters and frustrate Qohen further.

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There are all of these hoops for him to jump through like the rest of our mentally divergent heroes. Bob even says that he has no interest in being in charge of solving the Zero Theorem, because to do so would make you a tool. Qohen is going insane because he feels that he doesn’t have a choice.

This is all definitely played very big and with a silly tone and demeanor to it, but the bigger joke here is that this is in fact a fairly wrenching tragedy rather than a farcical comedy. Pretty early on, it’s clear that Qohen is doomed with the elegiac score often underscoring his direness. There’s a great deal of poignancy in the idea of the person set to prove the Zero Theorem’s goal, that the universe is pointless, is also a man who has shown nothing but faith and devotion for this magical phone call he waits for, throwing everything away as a result. It’s truly crushing when you see Qohen turning down his escape and possible happy ending with Bainsley in favor of pursuing this soulless goal with a make-believe reward.

On the topic of Bainsley and the escapist fantasy her virtual world represents, each of these films features some sort of fantasy dream to retreat to. Here, it’s Qohen going into these fantasies with Bainsley to escape the bleak world around him. In Brazil, Lowry imagines himself as a quasi superhero that can literally fly above this evil and escape from the world. Even in 12 Monkeys where Cole is repeatedly dreaming about visions of his own death, haunted by them in fact, they still contain the clues to fixing everything and giving him the release that he needs. Everyone has coping mechanisms that become more and more crucial.

What’s most interesting about these escapist realities that Gilliam sets up for his protagonists is that each of them paint a seemingly happy ending for these films when in fact the stories close on not only dire notes, but often the deaths of our heroes. Brazil posits that Lowry gets away with his dream girl to a happy ending, but this is in fact a lie manufactured by Central Services. The reality is Lowry trapped in a tomb with a deceitful smile plastered on his comatose face as the escapist “Brazil” theme crescendos. 12 Monkeys reiterates a similar position with Cole failing his mission, his younger self assumedly going to carry the torch years down the road, but this is a broken cycle rather than a hopeful one. The super-virus will never be stopped. This cyclical game will forever go on.

Now, in The Zero Theorem, much like in the film that started the trilogy, Qohen chooses to get lost in this lie of an escapist world after learning the universe is an empty, pointless place. A happy ending is forced on each of these characters, almost like a curse for towing the line between worlds.

Each film also makes smart use of music to accompany these retreating fantasies that become emblematic of an optimistic alternative. Brazil’s title is even a reference to Ary Barroso’s “Aquarela do Brasil” that scores these escapist dream sequences. 12 Monkeys’ title sequence is like getting lost in a kaleidoscope, as its own insanity escapist tune bellows, but while also using “What A Wonderful World” as a frequent anthem that is deeply satirical considering where things are actually at in the film. This trend is continued in The Zero Theorem as the virtual reality segments are scored to a wonderfully cheerful jazzy cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” that perfectly captures the idea of these worlds being covers for the emptiness beneath them all.

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In the end though, regardless of how it’s constructed, the illusion in Qohen’s case is still technology and he is deeply, increasingly dependent of it. The world seems hopelessly lost in their technology in a glimpse of a world that doesn’t seem far from our own. But even in Brazil, we see that TVs are everywhere, even connected to bathtubs, and that cameras track people through halls that literally look like roving eyes with protruding pupils. Your entire morning routine is even automated and done for you as you devolve into a state of helplessness, but blissfully so. 12 Monkeys takes a more antagonistic approach with the idea, saying that we’ll break down and be less able to communicate with each other due to the interference of technology and Big Brother. It insists that they create false memories and there are glimpses of this everywhere in the film (like with how Cole’s dream is slightly different every time we see it).

After considering all of this, and looking at the trilogy as a whole, The Zero Thoerem has the bleakest message at its core—the universe has no meaning—yet it’s the most lighthearted of the films. However, the other films may in fact be bleaker, with the super-plague of 12 Monkeys continuing on (yet people are still fighting to reverse it), and the sheltered, trapped society in Brazil, but at least in each film, the population seems happier (the poor, scared people of Brazil; the prisoner-like society of the wiped out future in 12 Monkeys, and the happy, yet placid people in The Zero Theorem). It’s our mentally divergent heroes that must shoulder the burden.

If there’s perhaps anything capable of breaking through this, anything to prove that the universe isn’t hopeless and a waste of time, then it’s love. In all three of these films, love plays the marginal role of piercing through the oppression and occasionally hinting at a chance for hope. All of these movies show our heroes asking people to trust them and take a leap in worlds where you’re literally being told not to do so and how no one can be trusted. Time and time again though, it’s love that ends up working. Whether it’s Lowry writing it on Jill’s windshield to get her to stop trying to lose him, the wounded relationship that Katherine has with Cole that makes his journey possible, or that a love-fueled relationship is what it takes for Qohen to realize what is more important in this world and why love is ultimately more significant to him than reality.

The points and themes that are threaded together through these films that were made decades apart are a joy to unravel. It’s nice to see Gilliam mostly stick the landing with his latest film, and that it’s a worthy title to take this trilogy out on, and that he’s still capable of movies that are ridiculous and purely him. If The Zero Theorem and its predecessor, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, are any indication, it feels like the man has much left in him still, and it’s exciting to see that after his Trilogy of Imagination and this Trilogy of Orwellian Dystopia, what sort of tangential trilogy he may have in store for us next.

Let’s just hope that the universe doesn’t get sucked into a black hole of nothingness before then.

Or maybe it already has one hundred times over and we’re just the most hopeful experiment for getting it right.

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