The camera slowly fades in to reveal a swirling, black hole. A storm brews at its epicenter. Lightning flashes. Thunder claps like a heartbeat. The camera pans out to reveal Qohen Leth (a subdued, monk-like Christoph Waltz) naked and facing the black hole intently, but also removed, a tad detached as if lost in a trance. The black hole simultaneously represents Qohen’s fears and metaphysical yearning. This is the beginning of the potentially interesting yet ultimately shallow “Zero Theorem”.
Qohen is a highly neurotic recluse living in London in the distant (or is it near?) future. He works at a monolithic company called Mancom run by an enigmatic and eccentric leader known only as Management (white-haired Matt Damon in lots of crazy outfits). Qohen is an entity cruncher. His job appears to center around manipulating a digital cube on a television screen with a Playstation controller while pedaling on a bike simulator. What? What does an entity cruncher do, you ask? He “work[s] with esoteric data that have a life of their own and are substantially more complex than numbers.” By the way, all of the entities that Qohen crunches go to something called an Oral Net Mancrive. Confused yet?
Qohen is quickly hired by Management to crunch the Zero Theorem (which is not adequately explained until the last third of the film). This means he gets to work at home as long as he periodically updates his progress. Working at home will give Qohen the opportunity to answer an important phone call he believes will tell him his purpose in life. You see, some time ago he received a phone call from a mysterious voice on the other end that simply asked his name, “Qohen Leth?” In that moment Qohen believed the voice would tell him the purpose of his life; but, in his excitement, he dropped the phone and disconnected the call. Ever since he has been waiting for Godot a return call to finally provide him with purpose.
Watching “Zero Theorem” is a lot like waiting for a phone call that never comes. Director Terry Gilliam’s always interesting, always cool visual aesthetics just cannot save this weak script. The great aspects of the movie are Gilliam’s visual interpretation of future, tech-driven, London culture as well as Qohen’s surrealist, black hole nightmares. Qohen’s fascination and eventual journey through his black hole reminds me of Dave Bowman’s meeting with the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That is, journeying through the black hole seems to resemble a kind of enlightenment and emergence onto another plane of being. This all sounds very Hindu, except Gilliam is an atheist; and the story itself reflects his worldview. This kind of philosophical inconsistency quickly becomes a problem.
Questions and Problems
We never quite figure out what’s going on at Mancom. It could be that Qohen’s job as entity cruncher entails creating artificially intelligent programs, like the therapist entity, Shrink Rom (a very funny Tilda Swinton). The problem is: it is too unclear to draw a conclusion. The Oral Net Mancrive could be an artificial neural net of sorts that houses other programs in its own universe. But, again, that is not so clear. Then there is the Zero Theorem. It could be that Qohen is attempting to recreate another Big Bang to discover the meaning of life. But both Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Management speak of the theorem as if it were simply proving that life is meaningless. Really? If Qohen recreates the Big Bang, does that not reinforce the notion of intelligent design? And then there is the program itself that keeps repeating, “Zero currently equals 93.78926% Zero must equal 100%” Huh?
Either this movie is operating in another atmosphere above my understanding of physics, or it is one long pseudo-intellectual discussion best left for college dorm rooms or Burning Man. I suspect the latter is true. While the story offers some decent philosophical questions (mostly from Qohen), the answers are so pat and dismissive they cannot be taken seriously. For example, Qohen asks Bob, “How can you believe in the soul if you believe in nothing?” Excellent question, Qohen! Bravo! Here is Bob’s reply: “It’s called a paradox, Q!” Actually, it’s called an ad hoc explanation, Bob!
Qohen represents a man of faith, which could have been interesting except his character is never developed beyond the neurotic-hermit-eschews-society-to-search-for-meaning bit. Qohen’s weak character development combined with the tongue-in-cheek religious ads for churches like “Batman the Redeemer” or “The Church of Intelligent Desire” just goes to show how badly atheists like Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin understand real people of faith, particularly Christians. I have said this a hundred times before, and I will say it one more time (to make a hundred and one): Real biblical faith is not a blind leap in the dark; rather, it is a trust based on evidences, what Aquinas and Anselm referred to as fides quaerens intellectum or faith seeking understanding. At the conclusion of the Gospel according to John, the author does not say, “We recorded Jesus’ miracles so you could forget about them and just take a blind leap.” No, the author says, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31). When John the Baptist questioned if Jesus was the Messiah in Matthew 11:3, Jesus did not scold John for his lack of faith. No, he appealed to the miracles He was performing and the fulfillment of prophecy as evidences in which John could place his trust (v. 4-5).
The silliest parts of the movie, arguably, are when some of the characters assert that the soul exists and that there can be meaning to life. Given the materialist presuppositions that the movie espouses, these claims are utterly incoherent. First, the soul is the immaterial aspect of the self that Christians believe survives beyond death. This Christian belief is undergirded by two foundations: the philosophical arguments for the existence of the soul and the divine revelation of God’s word. Atheists/materialists do not believe in the soul since, based on their worldview, all that exists is matter and molecules which precludes the existence of immaterial substances like souls. So, when an atheist who believes the universe (i.e. matter and molecules) is all there is and simultaneously believes in the existence of souls, there is a contradiction at play. Yet, Bob (who is arguably the most vocal atheist in the movie) makes both these claims. As I mentioned earlier, Qohen asks Bob a great question about believing in the soul; and Bob has no meaningful response. This is silly.
In Reasonable Faith William Lane Craig argues that, if God does not exist, then life is ultimately meaningless. “If each individual person passes out of existence when he dies, then what ultimate meaning can be given to his life? Does it really matter whether he even existed at all? It might be said that his life was important because it influenced others or affected the course of history. But this shows only a relative significance to his life, not an ultimate significance.” To put it another way: If God does not exist and we are all careening towards an inevitable death, even the universe itself is “plunging toward inevitable extinction,” what hope can we have? (The answer is none.)
And yet, in “Zero Theorem”, Bob and Management, the only two characters we are supposed to infer have higher knowledge on this subject, are simultaneously atheists and optimists. Bob gleefully tells Qohen, “You’re trying to prove the universe is all for nothing. All matter, all energy, all life is just this one-time only Big Bang glitch…” Qohen asks Bob who could believe such a thing, to which he responds, “I believe it. Nothing’s perfect. Nothing lasts forever. There’s nothing to worry about!” That is totally absurd. Check-marking off things to worry about does not produce de facto joy or de facto purpose and meaning. It does not produce Bob’s excitement when he speaks about the end of existence. If the universe is a relatively temporary accident producing matter doomed for extinction, where do we find hope, joy, and meaning?
According to Bob, those things are just in you. You have to find it in yourself. That kind of feel-good, Hollywood tripe is more than simply the wrong answer. Faced with the possibility that atheism is correct and God does not exist, one does not find meaning in oneself. One must make it up out of whole cloth. And there is the rub.
Actually, I do not know what is harder to believe: the movie’s incoherent claims or the atheist assertion that the universe sprang into existence without a cause. While I go away chewing on that one, let me just say: “Zero Theorem” is not recommended… unless you need something on in the background while folding clothes.
“Zero Theorem” is rated R for language and some sexuality/nudity.
N.P. Sala received his B.Sc. in Religion in 2013 and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Secondary English at University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the creator of the Christian Apologetics blog A Clear Lens and writes movie reviews for Let There Be Movies. Follow him on Twitter at @N8Sala.