The Zero Theorem

Sep 17, 2014

A beautifully wrought sci-fi with an ultimately simple thesis.

The Zero Theorem

Grade: B+

Director: Terry Gilliam (Brazil)

Screenplay: Pat Rushin

Cast: Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Bastards), Matt Damon(The Monuments Men)

Rating: R

Runtime: 107 min.

by John DeSando

  “Waiting for The Call. What other reason is there to pick up the phone?” Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz)

Yes, Terry Gilliam is usually out there (Brazil, et al.): always imaginative, sometimes phantasmagoric, and never dull. There’s more of the same in The Zero Theorem, yet it’s surprisingly digestible. As a sci-fi drama with oodles of fantasy, it works like a light-hearted romance and a not-so-subtle satire of technological dominance and management remoteness.

Qohen is a computer hacker working on a theorem that tries to prove life is meaningless (don’t ask, I understand existentialism but in the zeros-and -ones world, I’m clueless). At the same time he’s waiting for a call to tell him what the purpose of his life is (see the introductory quote). 

In some regards, both motifs fit two classic stories: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (where god or whoever never shows up as two tramps await the arrival) and Henry James’s Beast in the Jungle, where the protagonist waits his whole life for something that never happens). Gilliam doesn’t go way out there with this waiting idea;  he uses the novelist’s tools to have his protagonist learn exactly what is worth waiting for and what the meaning of his life is.

In the end, The Zero Theorem is a palatable and enjoyable take on the popular sci-fi notion of a dystopian future where the puzzle of life’s meaning is reworked pleasantly. For most who have experienced these bleak worlds, this is the usual mantra;

“That's it. Chaos encapsulated. That's all there is at the end. Just as it was at the beginning.” Management (Matt Damon)

For those with an optimistic slant, Gilliam offers this observation:

“It's better than real. You're in your computer and I'm in mine. We're connected by memory chips and fiber optics. We're safe here.” Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry)

Gilliam, after the day-glo colors, arcade-like working cubicles, Steampunk-delivered software, and church of Batman the Redeemer, goes traditional with his hero finding the meaning of life, sort of a fusion of technology and “All you need is . . . . .” (You can fill it out and feel smug that you knew life’s meaning all along.)

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at