“The Zero Theorem” is a film from 2014 by the director Terry Gilliam, famously a member of the Monty Python comedy group and now an accomplished director with many great works. Most people think he was born in the UK given his time with Monty Python — actually this person was raised in the United States right before the counter culture explosion of the late 60s/early 70s. We invite you to read his own words from the early life section of wikipedia. We suspect many of you are feeling very similar things right now as we don’t seem to have learned the right lesson so we must repeat it.
That digression is important to understanding the film we think. This director has deep exposure to one of the more recent cycles of psychedelic thought. Yet He claims to have very little to no direct experience, again from his own words. We tend to view his films like a reflection of the psychedelic experience as viewed by the lay person, and that view seems to match with how Terry Gilliam thinks about his own work. So when we review his films understand we’re coming at it from this perspective.
Our movie here is generally about a man who believes if he lives a completely chaste life then a god will call him and give him a purpose. He works for a company that seemingly analyzes the emotional network that is the universe and uses that data to help other people and companies accomplish their goals. The company assigns this man the job of solving the Zero Theorem although defining that is the mystery of the film.
This man lives a dreary life, he won’t eat any food with taste, lives in a run down old church and seems to only work and sleep. When he is invited to a party with his boss we get to see a very real look at the silliness of trying to be separate in a party situation. Our protagonist is forced to mingle and ends up meeting a woman who ends up being a test sent from Management.
This woman shows our protagonist a small glimpse of the joy that ego indulgence can give, but a way to do it without harming anyone. Still, our protagonists rejects even this. His rejection is the proof that Management needed that this person is indeed the key to solving the Zero Theorem. Management needed a person who would reject all ego indulgence for the pursuit of a higher goal.
Ultimately this is story is a tragedy, our protagonist has apparently wasted their life, as Matt Damon playing the character of Management puts it:
“The saddest aspect of mankind’s need to believe in a God, or to put it another way, a purpose greater than this life, is that it makes this life meaningless.”
That’s a tragic quote isn’t it, this changes the tone of the entire film eh? Let us weave that in with another great thinker from the same time period that gave us this director:
“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end, and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” — Alan Watts
We hope seeing these two quotes next to each other can help you to understand the real themes that this movie is trying to bring out. These are deep themes about the pain of our separate existence and how to deal with this in a way that causes the least harm. Mr Gilliam certainly understood these ideas at some level and his films show it brilliantly.
That’s one lens to look at this film through, but there is another. If we consider instead that our main character was in fact alone throughout the entire film. All of the other characters are instead separate egos, the main characters general distrust of all the other characters matches our own feelings about others in our world. We often, like the main character, want to hide from the world and just be by ourselves.
By the end of the film the main character is in fact totally and completely alone. All of the other characters have disappeared, or maybe they were never really there to begin with. Now our main character realizes that they are actually god, they are everything and can do and create anything they want. This realization is represented by bouncing the sun as if it were a beach ball. Our main character can separate again and indulge in all the ego explorations they want with the understanding that they are actually everything.
“To know that you are God is another way of saying that you feel completely with this universe. You feel profoundly rooted in it and connected with it. You feel, in other words, that the whole energy, which expresses itself in the galaxies, is intimate. It is not something to which you are a stranger, but it is that with which you, whatever it is, are intimately bound up. That in your seeing, your hearing, your talking, your thinking, your moving, you express that which it is that moves the sun and other stars.” — Alan Watts
It seems our two thinkers are coming to the same conclusions.
This cycle of wanting to be alone, being alone, and then wanting to separate again is the only real constant in our universe. We see it happen again and again on both the macro and micro scales of history and our daily lives. Understanding and “solving” this cycle appears to be the true idea behind “The Zero Theorem”.
So please take an evening and rewatch this film, try to consider it from this new light. How does that make you feel? Why does it make you feel that way? Why do we all feel this way all the time?