The Tragedy of Quothen Leth - The Zero Theorem (2014)

The Zero Theorem, by Terry Gilliam, is a tragi-comedic tale easily mistaken for another Brazil. The world seems superficial and dangerous. The streets are crowded and filthy. Everyone has gone cosplay crazy with Batman as their new messiah. At the center of it all is one Quothen Leth, an honest man sucked into the black hole of his lonely, shallow environment. But Terry Gilliam has a deeper story to tell, one that cleverly exposes Leth's true predicament. Leth, in many ways, is an anti-hero who shows how dystopia can be self-induced rather than imposed by the state. It's a story about a man who creates his own misery and it is this that makes The Zero Theorem different from Brazil.

Brazil was a film produced by Gilliam in the mid-80s. In it, protagonist, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) plays a low-level government employee who survives a totalitarian regime through dreams of finding the perfect woman. Compare this plot with The Zero Theorem where Leth survives an abrasive environment and finds hope in the search for the true meaning of the universe. Both men seek resolution through an unattainable ideal. Yet, one story is dystopian, while the other one isn't. Why?

The Definition of Dystopia versus The Zero Theorem

The online Oxford Dictionary defines “dystopia” as: An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or   environmentally degraded one. The opposite of utopiaThe Zero Theorem is a futuristic world where everyone is to taken to loud, obnoxious behaviour and low-paying gamified jobs. Picture Metropolis but with men and women attached to video consoles rather than big clocks. Mass media inundates the environment. Residents seem pollute by it both mentally and emotionally. Batman looks like Jesus. The state intrudes home and hearth via computers (without a high terror alert mind you). The place looks like Brave New World, Brazil and 1984 rolled into one. But it isn't.

If we take a closer look at Terry Gilliam’s futuristic world, it looks bad, but not torturous. Privacy isn't violated through state-imposed Skype sessions. Residents welcome it. Quothen acts like its normal, not intrusive. The over-manic quality of the The Zero Theroem world isn't necessarily bad either. It doesn't cause any suffering. Life gets faster with each generation. Ours isn't the exception and neither is Leth's. The high dose of media doesn't particularly dominate as much as pervade the environment. The world looks uninviting, but that doesn't necessary make it  dystopian either.

If the world isn't dsyptopian, then what kind of world is it? Normal? Then where's the darkness coming from? Answer: Quothen Leth. Believe it or not, he is the black hole in question. He is the desperately, lonely man living in his own heart of darkness. He is a plain looking, plain dressing and plain eating man who got a phone call that told him the meaning of life, but only half way through. The other half of the answer is out there, waiting for Leth to pick up. 

MANCOM, his employer, makes a deal: Work on the Zero Theorem project which proves that life is meaningless and Leth can stay at home waiting for the phone call to say that it is not. The question is, Which will comes first?

The Dystopian Life of a Zero Theorem

Quothen Leth is a stay-at-home philosopher forced to prove he's wrong about something that he's hanging on for dear life. If he can just hold out long enough to get the phone call with the other half of the meaning of life, then maybe he will win out in the end. Leth's life will be happy and vibrant again. But is that really true?

The truth is this: The plot and the story aren't the same thing. Quothen Leth's drive for meaning reveals something that's easily overlooked. Throughout the mess, there are people who want to befriend him. Leth has all the opportunity to connect with other human beings but keeps turning them down in lieu of finding the meaning of life. He doesn’t socialize anymore. He doesn’t have friends. He doesn’t leave home to work. People try to reach out to him like Joby (David Thewlis) his boss, Bainsely (Mélanie Thierry), the chick who falls in love with him, and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the kid hacker with a cynical streak. Leth rejects all them, even himself. He refers to himself as “We” rather than “I”. If that’s not a sign of internal strife then what is? As a result, life becomes meaningless and this emptiness compels Leth to look for a life in existentialism. It's a vicious cycle that's self-destructive, or, put bluntly, a black hole. That's what Leth as become. A Zero Theorem.

Zero Theorem: The 21st Century Meme

The Zero Theorem offers a new meme for anyone who has checked out of our over-sized, geeky mega-complex world in lieu for some false existential musing about the meaning of life. No matter how loud this world becomes, our relationships matter more than anything. To go "Zero Theorem" is to metamorphize from a human being to a small bug on the tip of the cosmic behind. It is the difference between being a living, social creature from a dead-end black hole loner.


The Zero Theorem, IMDB, Accessed April 10th 2015

The Zero Theorem, Netflix, Accessed November 2014

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