Monday 21 July 2014 sees the home entertainment release of Terry Gilliam’s latest dystopic flick, The Zero Theorem – which follows one man’s tragicomic investigations into the meaning of life (or lack thereof). To celebrate, we’ve collated the top ten films that wrestle with this archaic conundrum – and perhaps we’ll even be able to shed some light on an answer (although, let’s be honest; probably not).
10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (2005)
Adapted from the book of the same name, The Hitchhiker’s Guide documents the galactic travels of Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) after he escapes the destruction of Earth in his dressing gown. The answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything is revealed early on: it’s 42. The rest of the film is spent trying to figure out the question.
9. Mr Nobody (2009)
Mr Nobody begins by describing pigeon superstition; in an experiment, pigeons that are given food when they are coincidentally flapping their wings, wrongly believe the food is a direct result of their wing-flapping. What follows is a chronicle of a 117 year old man’s life, the choices he made, and the choices he could have made – but didn’t. The nonlinear narrative, whilst exploring themes of causality, chaos theory and the butterfly effect, argues that just like the pigeon’s wing-flapping, our choices and actions are largely irrelevant in this chaotic, unpredictable world.
8. The Zero Theorem (2014)
Christoph Waltz stars as a despondent genius asked to crack the inscrutable ‘Zero Theorem’. The big question here is, if the universe is destined to implode in a ‘big crunch’, is there any point to anything – or does it all amount to zero? As if that’s not enough philosophical food for thought, he’s also awaiting a phone call to reveal the meaning of his life. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t catch the phone number.
7. Stalker (1979)
In this atmospheric Russian film, two men follow their guide – known as a ‘Stalker’ – into an abandoned ‘Zone’ where there is said to be a room that grants wishes. As they traverse the dangerous and unpredictable landscape in which the rules of physics do not apply, they ponder the meaning of their lives – and whether their most desired wishes would actually bring them happiness.
6. Zardoz (1974)
Zardoz will make you question the meaning of life in two ways. Firstly, its depiction of a post-apocalyptic future interrogates whether certain values are essential to humanity; a poverty-stricken underclass is ruled by a sexually inactive immortal race, who are beset with ennui despite their privileges. Secondly, you may doubt whether life has any intrinsic value once you have seen Sean Connery in nothing but knee-high boots, underwear and suspenders, confronting a giant floating head.
5. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as two lovers who, after breaking up, both pay a company to erase their respective memories of the relationship. The film navigates the past and the present to build a picture of an endearing yet flawed love between two believable characters, and we are encouraged to wonder whether the failures we’d rather forget are just as important as our fondest memories.
4. Gravity (2013)
Alfonso Cuarón’s recent space thriller may not seem to wrestle with many philosophical conundrums as Sandra Bullock races to escape the debris-strewn orbit of Earth – but before Bullock’s grief-riddled character can find the will to survive, she must regain the belief that life has meaning. In one particularly poignant scene, Bullock intercepts a civilian signal from Earth, and they communicate despite not speaking the same language. Amid catastrophe, in the isolation of space, a glimpse of human solidarity reminds us of what’s really important.
3. The Matrix (1999)
The Matrix has its fair share of action-packed thrills, but its most memorable scene conveys the idea that the entirety of the world around us is a construction – compiled from sensory data, and existing only in our brain – that may not be as ‘real’ as we assume. This begs the question: is a simulated existence as meaningful as a real one? Well, the characters in The Matrix certainly don’t think so, as they’d rather fight terrifying swarms of robots in a ‘real’ underground cave than sit around in their simulated underwear eating simulated takeaway. We know what we’d prefer.
2. The Tree Of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s contemplative drama drifts between the seemingly insignificant and the infinite, as scenes of a grieving family in 1950s Texas seamlessly blend with a depiction of the formation of the universe to an operatic score. What can life and death mean in the context of such gargantuan scale? A recurring motif in the film is a flickering light, barely visible against darkness, which is never explained but implies an inscrutable meaning, just out of reach.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Kubrick’s science fiction epic spans the dawn of man to the space age, and stars Keir Dullea as a space-bound scientist forced to confront a maniacal artificial intelligence, an eerie alien artifact and even his own mortality. The film questions the significance of mankind in the vastness of not only the universe, but our own evolutionary timeline. As for what comes next? Giant space babies. Um, yeah, we’ve got no clue what that’s about either.
The Zero Theorem is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from 21 July 2014.