Terry Gilliam’s Dystopic Futures: ‘Brazil,’ ’12 Monkeys’ and ‘The Zero Theorem’

By  · Published on September 25th, 2014

The Zero Theorem


Warning: This article is best read after having seen all the films in the title.

Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem is widely considered both an extension and revisitation of the dystopian themes the director so spectacularly explored in Brazil. Gilliam’s newest has even been categorized as a third part of a trilogy of dystopian science fiction satires – or, in Gilliam’s words, “Orwellian triptych” – following Brazil and 12 Monkeys.

While Gilliam in interviews resists notions of a planned trilogy portraying future systems of control over almost thirty years, the Orwellian triptych carries remarkable similarities beyond these films’ driving conceits and Gilliam’s signature wide angles. The films of this trilogy portray individuals attempting to find truth and meaning beyond the dehumanizing systems in which they live, yet each protagonist is overcome by a sort-of predetermined fate and ultimately victimized by the alienating forces of technology.

But the films of this trilogy are as notable for their stark differences as they are their similarities, and The Zero Theorem finds Gilliam fashioning his most discomfitingly ambiguous funhouse mirror of our present future yet.


At the center of each of these films is a comically absurd picture of alienation at the hand’s of a massively technocratic project of “progress.” While Brazil is often read as a Pythonesque adaptation of Orwell’s 1984, the film owes as much is not more to the insane bureaucratic labyrinths of Kafka’s novels and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. At the center of Brazil’s power structure is not a totalitarian figurehead in the form of “Big Brother” producing a society whose work and worth is defined by an unquestioned veneration of the State, but rather an extensive bureaucratic system that espouses a hyper-efficiency that is never actually made evident in practice.

It takes 1984 towards its end to reveal that Big Brother functions no different from the Wizard of Oz – an object lesson that symbolic power can be more captivating than the system that power represents. But Brazil never requires a Big Brother figure. Rather, rabid consumption is its mass opiate, as the acquisition – not building – of meaningless things (from new faces to Christmas presents) justifies meaningless work, and vice versa. Where 1984 is a dystopia written in the context of the Hitler’s pursuit of a uniform superstate, Brazil presents a dystopia in the shadow of Reagan and Thatcher’s trickle-down economies, a society in which capital is key, the logic of management and the authority of employers remains unquestioned, private and public enterprise are indistinguishable, and getting one’s own is the secret to happiness.

Unlike many visions of totalitarianism, Brazil portrays a decentralized, inefficient system as the mechanism of control, and resulting frustration the key to a subordinate populace. Anyone who has been on the phone with Comcast can relate. Brazil’s famously bleak ending demonstrates why a seemingly dysfunctional system “works” so well – it makes it easy to spot its potential dissenters and render accountable those who wish to change it.

Brazil’s (preferred) ending should come as no surprise to those familiar with its source material, but it is also telegraphed: Sam Lowry’s (Jonathan Pryce) dream-visions of revolt always require a nefarious, often hyperbolic enemy to battle and vanquish. But a bureaucratic dystopia works precisely because there is no one person to blame, and no locus of power to destroy. Again, Comcast.

12 Monkeys

12 Monkeys provides a variant on Brazil’s alienating systems of technocratic control. Fear, not consumerist distractions, structures the underground human society that opens the film. The fear of disease that has destroyed much of the Earth’s population has created a society in which no one touches another, in which people are organized and segmented in individual, not shared, prisons. Whether the disease still exists in the mid-twenty-first century does not matter: the epidemic and the panic it caused have become one in the same, with the latter transforming into the governing principle by which the remnants of human society is organized. Scientists – and the fear of what they don’t know – have naturally taken the positions of power in a society governed by organisms that it can’t see.

Released less than a year after an Ebola outbreak in Zaire (which occurred a month after the film Outbreak was released), 12 Monkeys was a timely cautionary vision of a dystopic fate ensured not exclusively by epidemics themselves, but by the comparably uncontrollable outbreak of mass hysteria that often follows. Numerous comparisons have been made between the spectral virus of the world of the film and contemporaneous crises relevant to the ’90s, AIDS chief among them as James Cole (Bruce Willis) dons a head-to-toe condom in order to enter the surface world. As a result, the film’s most trenchant critique seems to be the fear of others that develop from crises of the human body. In the post-apocalyptic landscape of 12 Monkeys, shared human crises become compounded when the collective response is governed principally by fear.

Cole’s tragic fate is thus similarly telegraphed and inevitable as Lowry’s, for living a life of fear governed by tragedy means that one’s life is inevitably lived revisiting that tragedy until the end. Gilliam once said that the Bush administration should apologize for plagiarizing Brazil, but beyond the film’s 90s-specific themes, I can’t think of anything that happens to encapsulate a post-9/11 mentality quite like the utterly disconnected world of fear and ceaselessly revisited tragedy at the heart of 12 Monkeys.

The Zero Theorem

Gilliam’s latest is expressly about the alienation that occurs through digital technology. In this dystopian vision, simulated social networks have destroyed any semblance of actual sociality. The society of Zero Theorem is designed completely in service to this digital world, as the consumer culture of Brazil is replaced by information-age corporatism and aggregation-age identity formation. This is not only a world in which people are enamored with things, but such things are explicitly non-material: Qohen Leth’s (Christoph Waltz) job is essentially to navigate simulations and the city square is populated by advertisements for unspecific ideas, vague institutions, and products unseen.

At the center of this mayhem, Leth seems like an asocial outsider, a lone wolf ailing from the shared psychosis that emanates invisibly to all around him. But in a way, he is a digital society’s inevitable product, a post-human specimen no longer capable of intimacy who wants to work alone (yet can never actually be alone) and sees his only path to liberation through a now-obsolescent remnant of mediated social interaction: a telephone meant only for speaking. As with Lowry and Cole, Leth’s potential journey towards something more is suggested through his affection for a woman (and women do exist in these narratives as devices to exercise the film’s thematics, most problematically in Zero Theorem), but sex in this case isn’t even something to be feared, but rather a commodity tailor-made for digital algorithms.

While Lowry and Cole became potential harbingers of a revolution, or people whose life eventually (if tragically) becomes defined by an effort towards finding a greater truth, Leth’s only decisive path – his obsession over a phone call – is itself tragic, an epic pathology of self-deception. Gilliam’s dystopic vision in Zero Theorem is decidedly bleaker than that of Brazil or 12 Monkeys, but perhaps because it contains an even more frank, less exciting observation. Where these former films at least entertained the possibility of upending the system, or at least giving it a good run for its money, Zero Theorem presents the possibility that the only way to survive meaningless existence is to latch desperately onto meaning where none exists: the possibility that the technologies that alienate us may one day lead to something beyond their paradoxical busywork. Zero does equal one hundred percent, and vice versa.

Zero Theorem’s ending is something of a reverse of Brazil’s. Brazil gives us the Hollywood dream of liberation, followed by the stark reality behind it and its attendant hopelessness for the possibility of a brighter future. Zero Theorem never goes outside this fantasy, leaving Leth occupying a simulacrum of a beach. Zero Theorem does not merely revisit Brazil’s themes, but inverts them. In presenting a world too far gone to save or be worth saving, a world too thoroughly driven by complacency to even notice a revolution, Zero Theorem suggests that the fabricated worlds we make for ourselves might actually be preferable to a life of alienation.