In the “Golden Age” of sci-fi circa the mid-20th century, the future was often portrayed as an exciting, mysterious place filled with adventure and limitless possibility. Think Campbell and Gernsback and Heinlein. Sure, there were plenty of stories that harked on the worst parts of human nature and the dismal outcomes when technology eggs them on. Asimov loved imagining the fall of great empires, and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which spawned its own vocabulary for sci-fi paranoia, was published right smack in the middle of the Golden Age in 1949. Even the very first strip in 1952’s very first issue of Mad Magazine, Blobs!, was an elaborate science fiction spoof of technocracy about blobs of humans who scoot around on carts because technology has superseded the human need for even basic ambulation1. Yet in spite of these examples of dark themes running through popular science fiction during the Golden Age, “Serious” Sci-Fi written around this era — to the extent that sci-fi is ever received as serious2 — was not implicitly cynical.
Think of all the fun that Asimov had playing with his Three Laws of Robotics governing all robots’ behavior, such as Herbie, the robot who lies to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. Or how about Bradbury’s late Golden Age tale simply titled “The Rocket” about a father who builds a virtual spaceship because he cannot afford tickets to bring his entire family on a Mars vacation? These stories were acclaimed and popular, and had very little to say about the inevitable post-modern destruction of all of mankind. Even the darker stories were written with a grain of salt. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the novel) takes on the now-classic tropes of artificial intelligence, interstellar space travel, and suspended animation, yet it also devotes plenty of time to imagining the future of human evolution and what might, without fanfare, proceed it. And then there’s Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five running the gamut of dark themes like war, death, and free will, yet is so tongue-in-cheek that these days it is hardly registered as a science fiction novel.
In other words, the re-telling of the Prometheus myth is becoming Sisyphean.
In recent years, the science fiction, or “speculative fiction,” genre has bifurcated. The fun, campy space operas are cast aside as ‘lite’ guilty indulgences, while serious speculative fiction is expected to make a meaningful commentary about society and the human condition. Fair enough, if the commentary didn’t always seem to be that we are inevitably headed for a bleak post-human future caused by either computers we programmed or psychotropic drugs we synthesized or some other autopoietic source of catastrophe. In other words, the re-telling of the Prometheus myth is becoming Sisyphean.
There is an argument to be made that the post-atomic world needed, and still needs, harsh reminders of the consequences of our progress, and speculative fiction authors can provide poignant cautionary tales about the future that shed light on our behavior at present. Philip K. Dick’s brilliant A Scanner Darkly, his only work to make good use of his uninspired dialogue style, warns against taking drugs that kill your personality by dropping its main character into a suit that jumbles his appearance so that he cannot recognize himself in a mirror and facilitates his plunge into duplicitous, and ultimately tragic, cognitive dissonance. And Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a moving parable about society’s willingness to knowingly scapegoat some members in exchange for others’ peace or happiness.
Yet ever since the 1980’s, when William Gibson’s Neuromancer set the template for the dystopian Cyberpunk genre in its depiction of corrupt multinational corporations, detached souls plugged into impersonal urban sprawls, underworld ninjas, and Rastafarian space pilots, nearly every depiction of future cities has predicted unequivocal urban decay (I never felt that Mirrorshades, a classic Cyberpunk anthology, lived up to its cool cover). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dick’s rare gem amongst his prolific methamphentamine-fueled library of duds, depicts a dilapidated post-atomic war future city where the only objects of social value are live animals. The book gained its full popularity after it was turned into the popular noir 1980’s film, “Blade Runner.” More recently, popular speculative fiction media such as The Hunger Games and Equilibrium depict more-or-less similar corrupt overlords repressing a future society. There is no shortage of other examples of dismal dystopian fantasies. Children of Men, 12 Monkeys, Gattica, District 9, The Watchmen, The Handmaid’s Tale3, and Infinite Jest each depict their own depressing version of society gone amiss for one reason or another.
Dystopia started off as a smart, gritty vision of the future that has since become a cliche. Cliches are boring. Besides providing scant glue for my attention span, there is also a much more significant problem with this specifically dark and unwavering version of our species’ future. It is depressing. At its best, science fiction can inspire us to discover and create. If you are friends with any scientists, be they engineers, chemists, or programmers, how many of them can’t quote wisdom from captain Jean Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise? Consider this Picard gem: “Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.” Can anyone imagine Katniss Everdeen saying anything as touching and genuinely inspirational?
Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was famous for his dogmatic insistence that humans be depicted as generally good in his version of the post-warp future. As a result, Star Trek tends to dwell on the bright, if occasionally paradoxical and frustrating, aspects of being a human, and an entire generation of scientists have found inspiration and purpose to contribute to society in its optimistic message.
One might say that the day Gene Roddenberry passed away was the day the Theremin music died in the world of speculative fiction. Even though his generation had several World Wars and Vietnam to inspire cynicism in their outlook of the world, he still endeavored to see the bright side of things. Today’s forward thinkers in speculative fiction seem to mistaken bleakness for profundity. The first two Terminator movies gave us a bitter fight against incredible odds — evil robots from the future — to save humanity, yet the latter two installments showed us that it was all in vain. Even celebrated writer/director Joss Whedon ended his series Dollhouse with a vision of the future in which every single person in the world has become a brainwashed slave. Do any speculative fiction artists think we have anything to live for anymore?
Terry Gilliam seems to say yes, and The Zero Theorem is a pleasure to watch as a result. On first blush, one might think that they’ve been locked into yet another 107 minutes of This Dismal Future when they meet Gilliam’s vision of Britain filled with in-your-face advertising that follows you from your doorstep to your job in a ruthlessly efficient panoptic cubicle that looks like a Chuck E. Cheese painted with glowstick contents. Yet the shittiness of the world in The Zero Theorem and its propensity for breeding vapid people is presented as the cause for ridicule and sarcasm, rather than genuine hopelessness for the human race. Bureaucracy hasn’t really become any worse than it is now, it has just taken yet another absurd permutation. Really, how many of us are forced to come into work just to show face, as the protaganist of The Zero Theorem is, when we know we would be far more efficient at home?
Living in a half-burned church smack in the middle of this wacky society, The Zero Theorem introduces us to a familiar trope in the sci-fi genre: the slowly-unwinding-analytic-genius-toiling-over-a-paradox guy, played by a pale, bald, reserved, and occasionally naked Christoph Waltz. When he isn’t trying to have cyber-sex or staring blankly at his black hole screen saver waiting for a phone call, Waltz’ Qohen Leth uses a surprisingly plausible 3-D Suduko-esque math software to solve a mysterious riddle, fruitlessly attempting to make “zero equal 100%” (don’t worry, the thinly-veiled metaphor here is revealed explicitly in the film).
The Zero Theorem oozes with directorial confidence. Whereas most sci-fi films that cover familiar topics either painstakingly play out all the cliches (exhibit a: Equillibrium) or awkwardly maneuver to avoid any of them (exhibit b: the almost-great Downstream Color), The Zero Theorem falls into neither trap. Instead, it either embraces the familiar tropes as they come up or curtly dismisses them with brutally hilarious deadpan explanations for their presence in the film. These produced some of the most satisfying moments in the movie for me, because it allowed my curiosity to grow throughout the movie without leaving me hanging at the end. I don’t want to spoil all the fun, but one example comes in the explanation for why Qohen refers to himself as ‘we,’ another belongs in a Waynes Brothers movie and occurs just after it appears that Qohen is about to learn his divine purpose, only for it to turn out that another character is just quoting Morpheus from the Matrix proselytizing about Neo. Another notable high-point is the lampooning of psychologist double-talk.
Audiences will charge that Terry Gilliam has not grown since Brazil in developing the world for The Zero Theorem, but I disagree. On the contrary, he displays some of the most impressive growth I have ever seen in a sci-fi director (for an exercise in lack-of growth, see Ridley Scott’s Promethesus). Because Gilliam permits the tropes to flow through the film without fanfare, the world he creates becomes all the more convincing. We don’t stop for a second to ponder over the specifics or plausibility of the virtual-reality the characters occasionally inhabit; we have our pick from Star Trek to The Matrix or Inception to fill in the technobabble blanks if that’s the sort of thing we care about. Instead, Gilliam uses this time to build upon his satire of the bureaucratically absurd future that he introduced in Brazil. The first half of the film is chalk full of Theater of the Absurd moments mocking plastic culture. My favorite is when a woman lights a pantomimed cigarette and proceeds to flaunt around a party flirtatiously blowing the non-existent smoke in men’s faces.
It is not just the fun, less-mopey version of dystopia that makes The Zero Theorem stand out. Its sense of evolution, rather than devolution, keeps the film watchable through the second half, where it tones down the sarcasm and plunges into a sensitive investigation of Qohen the man, rather than Qohen the caricature. Arronofsky’s Pi comes to mind as a juxtaposition here, where its lead character, also slipping into madness over a paradoxical theorem, devolves to the point of trepanning himself with a power drill. In contrast, Qohen battles, and succeeds against, his demons in the second act. Science fiction authors are notorious for using their characters as mouthpieces for their own polemics, and it is refreshing to see Qohen used to this end only for as long as he needs to be.
If there is a cliche worth criticizing here, it is the lack of depth given to the beautiful Femme Fatale Bainsly, who serves her purpose well as an object around which important developments happen, but is never given a chance to receive the audience’s sympathies. This wouldn’t be so horrible if it wasn’t all too common to ignore the women in this, and every other, film genre. Bainsly’s effect on Qohen’s internet porn meanderings is an interesting subplot that lasts as long as it should, as a subplot, and I found the resolution of the saga to have a satisfying, if sad, ending that we rarely see in the movies.
Matt Damon is, as he has become well-known for in his various cameos, hilarious, and I don’t think I am alone in admitting I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more of him in this film. His character is an asshole, to be sure, but he isn’t some cosmic, genocidal prick. He wouldn’t mind if a few people have to suffer for his benefit, but malice isn’t his objective. To that end, he is more of a caricature of the worst boss in the world than a cautionary figure like Big Brother.
Too often, nihilism and existentialism are conflated and hyperbolized: the former being mistaken for bleak cynicism, the latter being mistaken for the unique propriety of spoiled college kids. The Zero Theorem understands the subtly of each respective precept, and is not shy about taking a strong stance on them. The film’s ironic moral conclusion about the emptiness of an entirely purpose-driven life might make a lot more sense if you are familiar with the phrase amor fati or if you have read a bit of Camus. This part of the movie might be lost on those who had better things to do than toil over freshman philosophy classes.
As a word of warning, this is probably not a very good guy-girl first date movie, if only because Bainsly is so attractive that it might make both parties feel uncomfortable. If you can get past that, The Zero Theorem leaves you with plenty to talk about and maybe even a glimmer of hope for the human race after all.
Published on November 30, 2013 in Other