Zero Theorem

Author: Pat Rushin
Genre: Sci-Fi/Comedy
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 3
Characterization: 3
Writer’s Potential: 3

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A clinically depressed number-cruncher is assigned to prove mathematically that the universe is meaningless.


QOHEN LETH (40s, gaunt, and completely hairless) lives in a fire-damaged, abandoned chapel cluttered with computers and electronic equipment, which Qohen uses to examine bizarre streams of unrecognizable symbols. When his phone rings, Qohen answers frantically, but there’s nobody on the line. He hangs up, dejected. The next morning, Qohen pops a disc out of his computer and takes it with him to his office. He works in an antiseptic cubicle in a massive office heavily monitored by security cameras. Qohen receives an automated phone call reminding him of an appointment with the company’s health department to review a disability request. Qohen’s boss, MR. JOBY (20s), arrives to tell Qohen not to go to the appointment because of the backlog of work. Qohen hands Joby the disc, which contains all his required work and then some. Joby’s a little frustrated, but he admits this gives Qohen the free time for the appointment. Throughout the conversation, Joby continuously refers to Qohen as “Quinn,” and Qohen refers to himself as “we” and “us” rather than “I” and “me.”

Qohen meets with three doctors, each of whom ask questions about Qohen’s request to work from home. Qohen insists both that he’s more productive from home and that he’s dying, so they should grant the request. The doctors consult various tests that suggest Qohen is extremely healthy, aside from the hair loss. The doctors give him a CD-ROM titled “Dr. Shrink-ROM,” a virtual psychiatrist, and deny Qohen’s request to work from home. Back at his cubicle, Joby invites Qohen to a party. Qohen tries to get out of it, reminding Joby of his general dislike of people and fear of crowded social situations. Joby refuses to take “no” for an answer, so Qohen ends up at the party. True to his gripes, Qohen is an outcast at the party until he runs into BAINSLEY (20s, buxom and wearing a tight dress to accentuate this). Giggling, she attempts to engage Qohen in conversation. Qohen excuses himself and finds Joby. Qohen’s looking for MANAGEMENT, the near-mythical figure who runs their company. Joby says he’ll let Qohen know as soon as Management arrives. Qohen looks for a quiet place to get away from the partygoers and runs into Management, a mysterious man who clings to the shadows despite perennially wearing a taupe suit.

Management asks Qohen what his problem is, which Qohen takes as license to air all his grievances. He tells Management that he demands to stay home and work independently so he can be near the phone and wait for a very important, life-changing call. Management tells Qohen he’s insane, so Qohen politely excuses himself. Joby runs into Qohen and offers him hors d’oeuvres. Qohen refuses them, but Joby stuffs an olive in his mouth anyway. To the apathy of the entire party, Qohen nearly chokes to death. Only Bainsley pays attention, performing the heimlich maneuver until the olive shoots out of Qohen’s mouth. Qohen decides to wait out the rest of the party in the bathroom, but Bainsley follows him inside. They have an awkward conversation about Qohen’s job, why he always refers to himself as “we,” whether or not he’s taking antidepressants… Despite Qohen’s brusque answers, Bainsley is intrigued. She writes her phone number on his hand.

The next day, Joby announces that Management has hand-picked Qohen to work on the “Zero Theorem,” an important project guaranteed to burn out employees. Joby acknowledges his own stupidity/insanity was caused by working on the theorem for awhile. Joby leads Qohen to the company mainframe,where BOB (15, super-genius) types at a console. Joby introduces them, then leads Qohen past him to filing cabinets, where Joby provides Qohen with the software he’ll need to work on the theorem. Qohen is sent back to his chapel to work on the theorem in solitude. After working for awhile, Qohen decides to talk to Dr. Shrink-ROM (50s, female), a virtual therapist who appears on his computer monitor. After getting nowhere with her questions, Qohen gets a phone call — a computer call, telling him he needs to upload data in 60 minutes and to push some buttons if he needs more time. Qohen enters 120 minutes, but the computer won’t give more than 60. The hour passes quickly, and Qohen has not finished. He starts to break down when the computer calls him again. He smashes his computer monitor with a hammer, then smashes the phone.

Almost immediately, a phone repairman arrives — it’s Joby, in a white jumpsuit. Qohen discusses his problems with the theorem with Joby. As Qohen sees it, nothing adds up; Joby tells him, in fact, that “everything adds up to nothing.” Qohen decides he just wants his phone call so he doesn’t have to worry about any of this anymore. Joby ridicules Qohen about the phone call, then leaves. The next day, Bainsley shows up at the chapel. They have another awkward conversation, which steadily grows less awkward as Qohen discuss the theorem with her and gets all his anger off his chest. Eventually, Qohen gets around to discussing the phone call. He explains that he’s always wanted to feel special, and although he’s lived a mundane life that suggests he’s not special, one day he received a phone call — with something akin to the voice of God on the line. It excited Qohen so much that he dropped the receiver, disconnecting the line. Since then, Qohen’s been waiting for another phone call.

Bainsley finds it all a bit ridiculous, which humiliates and angers Qohen. She asks if Qohen really believes what he said; Qohen tells her he does, so Bainsley says she’ll help him if he does something for her. That “something” involves the two of them putting on virtual reality suits and entering a computer world that Bainsley has imagined — the two of them on a romantic beach. The setting makes Qohen uncomfortable, so Bainsley tells him to imagine his own perfect fantasy. Qohen imagines hovering, naked and in the fetal position, in outer space, next to a huge black hole. Bainsley is also there, and also naked. Bainsley is disturbed by the darkness of his “fantasy,” so she returns them to the beach, where they make virtual love. Immediately after, Qohen starts to get clingy, and threatens to quit his job and run away with her. This terrifies Bainsley, who disconnects them from the virtual reality so violently, it breaks the computer. Bainsley disappears, leaving Qohen alone.

Later, two deliverymen (who are clones of each other) bring Bob to the chapel to repair the computer. Bob lets slip that he’s the son of Management, which makes Qohen more uncomfortable than usual. He tells Bob that he’s quitting, but Bob tells Qohen that if he proves the theorem, Bob will get Qohen his phone call. Qohen tells Bob that doesn’t matter, because Bainsley plans to help him. Bob insinuates Bainsley was a prostitute hired by Management. Qohen refuses to believe it. Bob asks Qohen if he knows what the Zero Theorem is all about. Qohen doesn’t believe it matters, but Bob disagrees. He tells Qohen the theorem’s purpose: to prove, through quantum calculations, that everything in the universe is “just a one-time-only glitch.” It means nothing, and once the universe has expanded far enough, the whole thing will get sucked into a black hole. Bob tells Qohen to get back to work, and meanwhile he’ll hang around and try to figure out how to get Qohen his phone call.

When Qohen has to upload his next set of data and is once again unfinished, Bob agrees to help. After typing for awhile, he announces his major breakthrough, sends it back to the company, and says he needs to analyze the details back at the mainframe. Qohen continues to work. Bob doesn’t return until later that night. He brings Qohen a gift that will “solve” his problem. When Qohen gripes that it’s just another virtual reality suit, Bob explains that it’s actually a “prototype soul-searching device,” which will help Qohen search himself for the answer to why he’s so obsessed with the phone call. When Qohen refuses to wear it, Bob gets angry and announces that the phone call is a figure of Qohen’s imagination. All Qohen seeks is validation, some kind of evidence that he’s special — the phone call either never happened or meant nothing, and Qohen needs to use the soul-searching suit to move on with his life.

In the middle of this argument, Bainsley arrives. She admits to being a plant from Management and apologizes. She tries to make Qohen understand her sincerity, but Qohen gives her the cold shoulder. Bainsley announces she’s packed everything in her van and intends to disappear forever, unless Qohen will go with her. He lets her leave. Bob chastises Qohen for treating Bainsley so poorly. To help him getting over his social problems, Bob forces him to go outside. They go to a city park, where Bob makes Qohen eat a hot dog. Bob admires some good-looking teen girls, so Qohen goes over to them and attempts to fix them up with Bob. The girls think he’s a pervert and call over a cop. Bob straightens the situation out by claiming Qohen is his father and that he’s insane.

They return to the chapel, where Bob suddenly falls ill. Qohen gives Bob a cold bath, and Bob falls asleep. Attempting to carry Bob out to bed, Qohen slips and causes a slight crack in the bathroom mirror — behind which he finds a red light. Smashing it, Qohen finds a company camera, which he also smashes. When Bob awakens, Qohen tells him about the camera. In a fit of paranoia, Bob searches the chapel for more cameras. As he does this, Qohen receives a phone call. The phone call — a God-like voice announcing Qohen’s special place in the universe. When Qohen puts it on speaker-phone to prove it to Bob, Bob smashes the phone and announces it’s just Management playing more games. Bob leaves to find out what he’s up to.

That night, Joby arrives with a message: Bob wants Qohen to meet him at the mainframe ASAP. Qohen wants to know why he didn’t come himself, and when Joby doesn’t answer, Qohen accuses him of being a Management tool. Joby tells Qohen he’s also a tool, and if he had any self-awareness he’d know that. Qohen goes to the office, enters the mainframe… And finds Management instead.

Management tells Qohen that he is indeed special — he’s the key to proving the Zero Theorem. All Management needs Qohen to do is put on the soul-searching suit, which will find the information they’re missing — proof that humans don’t have souls, which will prove that the universe has no grander purpose. Qohen asks what happened to Bob; Management says Bob quit as soon as he found out Management had misappropriated his soul-searching technology. When Qohen says he won’t participate, Management threatens to have Qohen charged with assaulting the two teenage girls in the park and provide videotaped evidence of Qohen bathing Bob, whom he’ll force to testify against Qohen.

They return to the chapel, where Qohen gets into the soul-searching suit and Management plugs him into the computer. Dr. Shrink-ROM argues with Qohen about the meaning of life. Qohen agrees with Management that it’s pointless, but Shrink-ROM insists Qohen’s “phone call” is out there — he just needs to search for it. Qohen asks where to search as Management loads the program. Qohen awakens in his black hole “fantasy.” He sees before him not stars but thousands upon thousands of clones of himself, all naked at weightless. Qohen gains control over his movement and propels himself through the various clones, into the black hole — and on the other side is the tropical island, but no Bainsley. Qohen makes the decision to search every tropical island in the world to find her, but Management disables the program.

When Qohen wakes up in the chapel, he realizes his hair has begun to grow again. He announces that the Zero Theorem is unprovable. Management suggests that, perhaps, they’ve proved something more important. Management says that Qohen has found truth, and the truth has freed him of Management’s services. Qohen sets fire to the chapel and the computer, just as Bob arrives to “save” Qohen. They drive off together to search every tropical island in the world for Bainsley.


Zero Theorem combines elements of Waiting for Godot, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the philosophical undertones of The Matrix. The script contains some vivid visuals, but the writer focuses less on the eye candy and more on absurd dialogue and aimless plotting. Despite lofty ambitions, the result is ultimately unsatisfying, so the script merits a pass.

The characters are quirky to a fault. Rather than finding natural ways to integrate some of the strange behavior into the story, the writer adds weirdness for the sake of weirdness. It offered no compelling or believable reasons for things like Qohen constantly referring to himself as “we” instead of “I,” Bob calling everyone “Bob,” or the two deliverymen responsible for Bob being clones. This would be only a minor annoyance if Qohen weren’t such a passive character. He never takes action; the story just happens around him. Characters show up at his chapel at convenient times to either tell him what to do or explain the plot that’s happening elsewhere while Qohen just sits around, waiting for his phone call. Admittedly, it’s a challenge to have a protagonist whose main goal is “waiting,” but this script does not make the task dramatically interesting. His “love” of Bainsley, which drives the third act, is also unconvincing. Bainsley makes a few brief appearances in the story and never rises above the level of “trampy stereotype.” It’s never clear why Qohen falls in love with her (having virtual sex isn’t good enough), and it’s even less clear why Bainsley would fall for him. It comes across more like she just pities him.

The dialogue aspires to Waiting for Godot’s attempts to derive deep meaning from seemingly meaningless, absurd conversations. It misses the mark, instead coming across like patches of overly wacky, fast-paced banter interspersed with huge chunks of on-the-nose exposition. Rather than allowing the characters to come alive in interesting, unexpected ways, the technical babbling and pompous philosophical raving overshadows the sporadic moments of wit and cleverness. This remains a problem throughout because the writer opts to use the dialogue to drive the story instead of dramatic action and dazzling visuals that he excels at creating.

Although the story does a good job of setting things up in the first act, it loses momentum rapidly in the second act. Quick, active scenes give way to long, repetitive, dialogue-driven scenes. The third act rebounds slightly, but by then it’s pretty much a lost cause. The resolution is also a major disappointment. For a cynical satire, its ending is extremely pat — Management turns from menace to kindly old man on a dime, and Qohen works through all his problems and goes off with his new best friend to search for his true love. It’s hard to balk at a happy ending, but this one comes out of nowhere and doesn’t fit this story.

The script makes a valiant effort to tackle weighty ideas about faith vs. skepticism and religion vs. science. Because it relies on preachy monologues and repetitive arguments to convey these themes, instead of engaging characters and unique imagery, Zero Theorem sputters to a disappointing end. Without major changes, it will remain a pass.

The script’s cynical tone and emphasis on rambling about math, philosophy, and psychology will automatically limit its audience. It might play well in arthouse theatres, especially with a college campus nearby, but that type of audience is likely to reject the artificial happy ending, resulting in poor word of mouth.

Posted by D. B. Bates on February 1, 2009 7:22 PM