Zero Theorem

Most of what I knew about The Seventh Seal before I watched it in college came via Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey, which had riffed on the metaphor of playing chess with Death metaphor by upping it to playing Twister with Death. It turns out that a goofy comedy is not a good introduction to Bergman's film, which is even more serious than you'd expect a film set during the black plague to be, which is saying something. There are no characters in the Seventh Seal - everyone was a Symbol of Something Important more than they were men. The plot was less a series of events and more of a continuous Metaphor For Existence. I can understand why someone would find deep levels of meaning in the movie, but I was fairly alienated by it's need to bludgeon the audience with symbolism instead of letting the narrative speak for itself.

The Zero Theorem is Terry Gilliam's latest film, and it has a similar all-metaphor-all-the-time vibe. It's about a reclusive weirdo named Qohen Leth who wants to stop going into the office to do his number crunching because he thinks that some unnamed force is going to call him up on the telephone and explain the meaning of life to him, but the trick is that he has to be at home to get the call. The reclusive head of his company (who is always referred to merely as "Management") comes to him at a party and tells him that he can work from home as long as he agrees to work on the Zero Theorem, a madness inducing problem that no one has ever cracked. If Leth can mathematically prove that there is no purpose to life - that 100% of our efforts add up to 0% results - then he can write his own ticket at his company. It's a heavy-handed plot, and Gilliam isn't interested in sanding down the corners to make it easier for the audience to handle.

I don't disagree with the Zero Theorem's ultimate moral that whether or not life actually has a point we're probably better off pretending that it does, but I would have found that message to be a lot more compelling if it had been enacted in a more interesting way. As with the Seventh Seal, none of the characters in the Zero Theorem come across like people, but rather, as viewpoints on a particular topic. For most of the movie Leth refers to himself in the third person plural, and his constant use of "we" instead of "I" is obviously indicative of the fact that he's a stand in for all of humanity's seekers. His supervisor is a caricature of the small minded bureaucrat who doesn't get it. Management is a God stand-in who asks impossible tasks of his employees and might just be an hallucination. If you do end up engaging with the ideas that these characters represent it will be because you intellectually decided to, not because you were automatically emotionally involved with their plight.

Nowhere is this lack of personal depth more problematic than it is with the movie's only female character. Bainsley is a prostitute (already a bad start) and she isn't quite a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but she's damn close. On a story level, her purpose is to offer Leth constant wish fulfillment - which is, after all, what prostitutes do - and it's frustrating because we only barely get to glimpse what type of person she is aside from the act she puts on for money. On a metaphorical level she serves as an avenue to explore whether hedonism (in particular sexual hedonism), and later human connection (particularly romantic connection) might be an appropriate place to find existential meaning, and while those might be interesting avenues to explore in a densely metaphorical movie like this, you can't help but feel that the movie gives women short shrift by trying their existential worth to how well they can please an unpleasant man.

Ambitious attempts at tackling the big questions like the Seventh Seal or the Zero Theorem aren't going to be for everyone, but the subset of people who like challenging movies will be given a lot of food for thought. If you can look past their lack of interest in specific people you will probably find what their portrait of people in the abstract to be substantial. But since I can't quite look past that gap, I'm left waiting for another movie which will manage to address those existential concerns in a way that's a lot more grounded. Like maybe another Bill and Ted movie, except instead of playing Twister with Death they play Tetris with Leth.

Winner: Draw

The Zero Theorem on IMDB