The Zero Theorem

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The Zero Theorem
A man bathed in pink light, sitting with at a strange machine with glowing green cables seemingly coming out the back of his head.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Produced by
Written by Pat Rushin
Music by George Fenton
Cinematography Nicola Pecorini
Edited by Mick Audsley
Distributed by Stage 6 Films
Release date
  • 2 September 2013 (2013-09-02) (Venice)
  • 14 March 2014 (2014-03-14) (United Kingdom)
Running time
111 minutes[1]
  • United Kingdom
  • Romania
  • France
Language English
Budget $8.5–13.5 million[2][3]
Box office $1.2 million[4]

The Zero Theorem is a 2013 British-French-Romanian science fiction film directed by Terry Gilliam, written by Pat Rushin, and starring Christoph Waltz, Lucas Hedges, Mélanie Thierry, and David Thewlis. The story centres on Qohen Leth (Waltz), a reclusive computer genius working on a formula to determine whether life holds any meaning.

Gilliam has given conflicting statements about whether his personal view is that the film serves as the third part of a satirical dystopian trilogy or "Orwellian triptych" begun with 1985's Brazil and continued with 1995's 12 Monkeys.[5][6][7]

The film began production in October 2012.[8]


Qohen Leth, an eccentric programmer who refers to himself in the plural, is assigned to "crunch entities" for a company named Mancom. Finding himself suffering existential angst, Qohen constantly waits for a phone call, hoping that it might bring him happiness or the answers he seeks. When Qohen requests a "disability" evaluation, three company doctors determine that he is physically healthy, but require he have therapy from Dr Shrink-ROM, an AI therapist designed to provide mental evaluation. Wanting to meet with "Management", Qohen attends a party held by his supervisor, Joby. Stumbling into an empty room, Qohen finds Management and requests to work from home, as he would be more productive and would no longer risk missing his call; Management simply notes he finds Qohen "quite insane".

Attempting to leave the party, Qohen is pressed into staying by Joby and, when Qohen starts choking on an olive, he is rescued by partygoer Bainsley. His request granted by Management, Qohen is informed he is to start working from home, and is shown a massive supercomputer dubbed "The Neural Net Mancive"; containing all of the entities crunched by workers, Qohen is required to order its data to solve the "Zero Theorem", a mysterious mathematical formula. Spending months as a hermit whilst working on the program, he is diagnosed with numerous conditions by Shrink-ROM, and begins suffering nightmares involving a black hole.

Frustrated with his work, Qohen smashes his computer with a hammer, and is soon visited by Bainsley. Qohen confides in Bainsley that he believes he accidentally hung up a call that would have given him the meaning of life, and has desperately been waiting for a call-back ever since. Qohen is then visited by Bob, the teenage son of Management. Bob repairs his computer, reveals Management is spying on him, and suggests that Bainsley is only interested in Qohen because she is paid to be. After Qohen insists he will cease working on the Zero Theorem, Bob promises to get him his call if he continues. Having received a VR suit from Bainsley, Qohen interacts with her through virtual reality, which makes them both appear on a beach together. When Qohen asks if the sun in the horizon ever sets, Bainsley responds it is not programmed to do so. They soon kiss one another.

Visited again by Bob, Qohen, to his distaste, learns the Zero Theorem aims to prove life is meaningless through the Big Crunch theory. Digitally connecting to Bainsley again, Qohen is comforted by her, but when he denounces Management and suggests eloping together, she forcefully disconnects, damaging Qohen's suit. When Bob then takes his suit to repair it, Qohen connects to Bainsley unannounced, only to discover she is a webcam stripper. Bob returns with Qohen's suit, now repaired, and reveals his phone call is only a delusion, and admits his Dr. Shrink-ROM was only designed to identify his pathology rather than treat it. Qohen is visited by Bainsley, who apologizes for deceiving him, but claims she truly fell in love with him; despite Bainsley's offer to elope, which is encouraged by Bob, Qohen turns her down.

Qohen, discussing his problems with Bob, discovers Bob's health is radically declining. Caring for Bob, Qohen finds a hidden camera in his bathroom mirror, and begins to uncover and smash Management's cameras. Despite barricading his home, Management employees break in and take Bob away. Visited by Joby, Qohen is berated by him, as his actions got Joby fired. Qohen dons his now "repaired" virtual reality suit and connects to his computer, but is nearly electrocuted.

Appearing at the Neural Net Mancive, Qohen is greeted by an image of Management, who notes that Bob is hospitalized because of his declining health, which is due to a chronic illness. Management explains Qohen is now part of the Neural Net and, when Qohen asks questions about the meaning of his life, Management explains that there is none, and that he was never a higher power able to grant Qohen his call. Management explains that while the Zero Theorem would prove that everything is meaningless, the entire purpose of Mancom in "crunching entities" was to bring order to disorder, finding meaning in some form that he could sell. Management explains he chose Qohen to solve the Zero Theorem as he was its effective antithesis, since he had faith in finding meaning, waiting endlessly for his phone call. Management then disappears, apologizing as he no longer needs Qohen; angered, Qohen smashes the Neural Net, collapsing it and revealing a black hole inside. Smiling, Qohen jumps into it, only to appear back on the virtual beach. Resigned, calm and alone, Qohen stands in front of the sea and, after interacting with the sun, watches the sunset he causes. As the credits roll, Bainsley is heard calling Qohen, hinting that either Bainsley has joined him or he has conjured her up in his virtual world.


A loner computer programmer and mathematician searching for the meaning of life. The script called for Qohen to be bald; Gilliam insisted that Waltz also shave his eyebrows, both to challenge his acting and visually differentiate Qohen from Waltz's previous roles.[9][10] Ewan McGregor and Billy Bob Thornton were previously cast.
A femme fatale who enters Qohen's life. Gilliam resisted pressure to cast an established American actress, wanting someone whom few viewers had seen. The director stated that "the difference is, in particular the American actresses, they all look similar, they're all the same shape, they're all trimmed down. I want somebody's who's real and beautiful at the same time. She had a kid a couple of years ago, so she has a real body as opposed to these manufactured bodies." Thierry had previously played "reserved, beautiful characters"; Gilliam instructed her to think of Bainsley as "Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday combined".[9] Jessica Biel was originally attached to the role.[11]



Pat Rushin was inspired by vanitas of Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8 to write the film (the Hebrew title of which is קֹהֶלֶת, Qoheleth, meaning "Gatherer", but traditionally translated as "Teacher" or "Preacher"), which he felt suggested such questions as "What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What's the use?" Rushin wrote the 145-page first draft in ten days, with "no idea what [he] was doing". He checked several screenwriting books and screenplays out of the UCF library, including Terry Gilliam's Brazil.[17]

Producer Richard D. Zanuck originally signed Ewan McGregor to play Qohen Leth, but the actor dropped out. A later iteration of the project, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Biel, and Al Pacino and directed by Gilliam, was set to begin production in 2009.[11] Production was next set to begin in Vancouver, but Gilliam pulled out to work on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus following the death of its star, Heath Ledger.[17] In 2012, the project was restarted. Christoph Waltz replaced Thornton in the lead role, and the late Zanuck's son Dean replaced him as producer.[18][19]


Principal photography was scheduled to run from 22 October to 3 December 2012.[20] It eventually required one more day, meaning that the shoot actually lasted 37 days.[21]

Since Gilliam faced frustrations over the correct aspect ratio on home video releases of his earlier film Tideland (2005), The Zero Theorem was shot in the Maxivision format with an 1:1.85 aspect ratio, with 16:9 matting and telecine in mind, so Gilliam could be certain that every viewer in the world would see exactly what he had intended them to see in a premeditated 16:9 framing, no matter what device they would use; what Gilliam additionally liked about this technique, which he calls "the first one-size-fits-all, full-frame, semi-vinyl motion picture", was that it resulted in round edges on frame corners which he found resembled a vintage 1920s movie-going experience when projectors were not yet fitted to hide the camera gate's round edges.[22][23]

On the production process, Gilliam stated: "It's been one year from start to finish. Most of my movies take three years but this was a fast shoot and it was good to be in Bucharest. I loved the crews and Romanians work very hard and they're very skilled. Because we had limited funds we were flying people in for the day and back out again. I was knackered by the end of it."[24]

The director commented on the difficulty of producing such a film in the current industry climate: "This was a more modest budget than some of the big effects movies I've worked on but it's going to look so good on the screen. What's happened is the industry has become very much like society – there are the rich [films] and the cheap ones and the middle-budget films have been squeezed out of existence. You've got to get clever and take advantage of your friends who work for scale and work in great places with great crews where you get a bigger bang for your buck."[24]

Production design[edit]

In an e-mail sent to production designer Dave Warren, Gilliam concisely stated the look he intended for the film: "Neo Rauch + Ukulele Ike = The Zero Theorem".[25]


The film's score was provided by British composer George Fenton. Gilliam described it as being "like a ghost, this other character we never see".[24] A lounge music version of Radiohead's song "Creep" performed by Karen Souza is heard in the film and over the closing credits.


The Zero Theorem premiered at the 70th Venice International Film Festival on 2 September 2013.[26][27]


Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 50% based on reviews from 115 critics with a weighted average score of 5.7/10. The site's consensus states: "Fans of director Terry Gilliam's trademark visual aesthetic will find everything they've bargained for, but for the unconverted, The Zero Theorem may prove too muddled to enjoy."[28] Metacritic gives the film a normalized score of 50% based on reviews from 28 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[29]

Harry Knowles, who saw an early screening, gave a very positive review of The Zero Theorem, stating it was "perfect", and Gilliam's best film since Brazil, describing Waltz's performance as "amazing" and that the actor deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. He also hoped that the final version of the movie would be the one he saw, stating "There’s not a frame needing to be lost".[30]

Commenting on the film's misrepresentation by critics, Gilliam stated on his official Facebook page[31] that one of the few critics to note that The Zero Theorem was not a comedy, but actually a tragedy, was Dave Lancaster of Cinemas Online in his analysis of the film.[32]


  1. ^ "THE ZERO THEOREM (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 16 December 2013. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  2. ^ Brady, Tara (14 March 2014). "Terry Gilliam: 'The poetry of cinema has been replaced by the Dan Brown prose of cinema'". The Irish Times. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  3. ^ John Hopewell (2013-08-31). "Venice: Flexible Biz Model Amps Up Voltage". Retrieved 4 September 2013. €10.34 million (around $13.5 million) 
  4. ^ "The Zero Theorem (2014) - International Box Office Results". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 26 January 2015. 
  5. ^ Pulver, Andrew (2 September 2013). "Terry Gilliam blames internet for the breakdown in 'real relationships'". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 September 2013. Calling it the third part of a trilogy formed by earlier dystopian satires Brazil and 12 Monkeys, Gilliam says ... 
  6. ^ Brady, Tara (14 March 2014). "Terry Gilliam: "The poetry of cinema has been replaced by the Dan Brown prose of cinema"". The Irish Times. Retrieved 14 March 2014. Gilliam has suggested that The Zero Theorem may, together with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, form part of an Orwellian triptych. 
  7. ^ Suskind, Alex (17 September 2014). "Interview: Terry Gilliam On 'The Zero Theorem,' Avoiding Facebook, 'Don Quixote' And His Upcoming Autobiography". IndieWire. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved 16 October 2017. Well, it's funny, this trilogy was never something I ever said, but it's been repeated so often it's clearly true [laughs]. I don't know who started it but once it started it never stopped ... 
  8. ^ "Dreams: Terry Gilliam talks about preproduction for The Zero Theorem". August 2012. Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Morgan, David (2 September 2013). "Terry Gilliam calculates The Zero Theorem". CBS News. Retrieved 8 September 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Dreams: The Zero Theorem". Retrieved 3 December 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c Schmidlin, Charlie (30 August 2013). "Al Pacino, Jessica Biel & Billy Bob Thornton Among Cast In First Incarnation Of Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem'; Plus New Photos". 
  12. ^ a b c Fleming, Mike (1 October 2012). "Terry Gilliam Sets David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton For 'The Zero Theorem'". Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  13. ^ a b c Fischer, Russ (10 October 2012). "Matt Damon, Peter Stormare, and Sanjeev Bhaskar Join Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem'". Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  14. ^ Humphries-Brooks, Lauren (12 October 2012). "Ben Whishaw Will Cameo In Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem". Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  15. ^ "The Zero Theorem Production Notes" (PDF). 31 August 2013. Retrieved 1 September 2013. 
  16. ^ McWeeny, Drew (19 July 2013). "The first 10 minutes of Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem screened at Comic-Con 2013". Hitfix. Retrieved 8 August 2013. 
  17. ^ a b Craig, Kevin (August 30, 2013). "Meet a Professor Coming to a Screen Near You". Retrieved September 1, 2013. 
  18. ^ Fischer, Russ (13 August 2012). "Terry Gilliam's Next Movie is Wild Existential Sci-Fi 'The Zero Theorem,' Starring Christoph Waltz". Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  19. ^ Schaefer, Sandy (August 2012). "Terry Gilliam is Making 'The Zero Theorem' With Christoph Waltz". Retrieved 13 October 2012. 
  20. ^ "Hollywood film hires an Indian marketing Agency for the first time". 
  21. ^ "Dreams: The Zero Theorem". 
  22. ^ Terry Gilliam on The Zero Theorem: The One Size Fits All Full Gate Semi-Vinyl Motion Picture on YouTube
  23. ^ The Zero Theorem Q & A with Terry Gilliam on YouTube (see 8:00–9:49)
  24. ^ a b c Kay, Jeremy (18 May 2013). "Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem". Screen International. Retrieved 16 June 2013. 
  25. ^ Stubbs, Phil (2013). Dreams: 2013 News Blog, Dreams: The Terry Gilliam Fanzine
  26. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (July 14, 2013). "Terry Gilliam Says 'The Zero Theorem' Headed To Venice Film Festival; Jessica Chastain's 'Eleanor Rigby' Also Rumored". Retrieved July 15, 2013. 
  27. ^ "2 September". Venice Film Festival. Retrieved 16 August 2013. 
  28. ^ "The Zero Theorem (2013)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved 2018-05-07. 
  29. ^ "The Zero Theorem Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved 2016-08-20. 
  30. ^ "Harry says Terry Gilliam's THE ZERO THEOREM is his best since BRAZIL & Christoph Waltz's Best Actor Oscar!". Ain't It Cool News. August 2013. Archived from the original on 2013-08-26. Retrieved 2014-01-21. 
  31. ^ Gilliam, Terry. "Terry Gilliam Official Facebook Page: "AND THE WINNER IS... Dave Lancaster for his smart review"". Facebook. Retrieved 2014-03-27. 
  32. ^ Lancaster, Dave (March 2014). "The Zero Theorem (Terry Gilliam, 2013)". Cinemas Online. Retrieved 2014-03-27. 

External links[edit]