Two Films About the Meaning of Life

Learning image manipulation, one filter at a time.
When you stare into the abyss … you’ll notice that it’s kinda fuzzy around the edges.

Terry Gilliam scarred my childhood. Not through a too-young exposure to his surreal and occasionally lewd animations on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (my sense of humour is mostly the result of my dad exposing me to recordings of The Goon Show, again, too young) but rather through his film Time Bandits, one of the greatest and darkest children’s movies ever made. I’m quiet sure that the ending, which I’m not going to spoil, resulted in a few disrupted nights for my parents.

Now he’s back with The Zero Theorem, a new movie following the familiar Gilliam theme of a discontented everyman trying to survive in an at-times sadistically unfriendly dystopia. It’s equal parts Kafka and comic book, and the result is a visual feast that barely conceals the symbolism Gilliam shovels into the mix.

(Spoilers for two recent movies below the cut…)

To wit, Gilliam’s everyman—Christoph Waltz’s shambling Qohen Leth—lives in an abandoned church, is waiting on a phone call that will explain the meaning of his life, spends his days working for an omnipresent “Management,” can’t deal with the clamour of the modern world, is tasked with completing a theory proving that there is no meaning to it all, and meets Management’s rebellious son, who’s sent to help him and tries to persuade him that he’s looking for meaning in all the wrong places. There is, to put it mildly, material for a dozen film studies theses in just a cursory glance over The Zero Theorem.

Except … I couldn’t help feeling that I’d seen it all before. Quite recently, in fact. And in the cinema too. Yep, The Zero Theorem, which follows a protagonist trying to make sense of a crazy world and discover whether he’s in any way special or simply another cog in the machine, was beaten to the punch by The Lego Movie.

To be fair, the two movies go to very different places in their searches for meaning. The Lego Movie advocates a “we’re all special” balance between unfettered creativity and rules-following teamwork, whereas The Zero Theorem, insofar as it offers an answer to the conundrum, suggests that the best idea is to quit worrying so much about it and maybe, instead, go have some fun on a beach with someone special, with the possibility of some sex thrown in too.

The quest for meaning is about the oldest one there is. “Why are we here?’ we’ve been asking for just about as long as we’ve been smart enough to have a concept of “here.” Still, it’s unusual to see two more-or-less mainstream cinema releases take such direct aim at the question in such short succession.

The Lego Movie chickens out a little on the philosophising, detouring towards the end into something much more fundamental to the soul of Lego the toy: that moment when the childish you stops just sticking bricks together to see what you can come up with and the adult you starts trying to build something impressive and meaningful. It’s also by far the funnier and more coherent of the two films.

The Zero Theorem, by contrast, stares right into the abyss all the way to the end, and while there’s plenty of absurdist humour along the way, it’s deliberately and defiantly unsettling, in a manner familiar to those who’ve paid attention to Gilliam’s work over the years. The exact reading you want to apply to the film gets more and more important towards the end, because despite the amount of material being dumped through your eyeballs, there are no hard answers to be had here. Sometimes things just happen, and digging into them in a search for meaning can be a futile and painful exercise.

So, this time at least, no more mental scarring from Gilliam. Plenty of food for thought, mind. Still, if your interests are more on the pure entertainment side of things, I’d suggest The Lego Movie as your cinematic meal du jour.

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