0 (zero) must equal 100%.
Qohen Leth is an eccentric and reclusive computer genius who lives in an Orwellian corporate world and suffers from existential angst. Under the instruction of a shadowy figure known only as "Management", Qohen works to solve the "Zero Theorem" — a mathematical formula which will finally determine whether life has any meaning. Qohen's work in the burnt-out chapel that serves as his home is interrupted by visits from Bainsley, a seductive woman, and Bob, the teenage son of Management.
The Zero Theorem contains the following examples:
- Affably Evil: Management turns out to be this. He wants the Zero Theorem proven so that he can convince people to live in the now (preferably with his company's products and services) instead of wasting their time thinking about potential afterlives or deeper philosophical topics. When Qohen fails to come through with it, Management's response is to gently fire him.
- The Anti-Nihilist: Bob believes in the Zero Theorem, the idea that everything ultimately adds up to nothing (meaning life is ultimately without any actual higher meaning) but sees it as a source of joy and reassurance opposed to Qohen who finds this idea depressing:Qohen: How would anyone believes such a horrible thing?Bob: What's so horrible? I believe it. Nothing's perfect, nothing lasts forever, there's nothing to worry about!
- But as he says so himself, he's young enough to believe anything, even that it might be wrong.
- Management could counts as a dark exemple as he knows about the utter meaninglessness of it all, but still bothers to make business.
- Bittersweet Ending: Qohen fails to solve the Zero Theorem, gets fired, and is unable to reconcile with Bainsley, Joby is also fired for Qohen's screw-up, Bob is hospitalized with a severe fever that will most likely kill him, and Management implies that he's just going to keep trying to solve the Zero Theorem. However, Qohen finally takes the leap into the giant black hole in his dreams and winds up on the beach that he and Bainsley used to play around in; his letting the sun set when it was once permanently fixed at a certain point might symbolize that he's ready to finally move on in his life.
- Also, The Neural Net may be destroyed, stopping Management forever, depending on whether Qohen's tantrum is real or just more of his weird imaginings
- Crapsack World
- Femme Fatale: Bainsley
- Gainax Ending: It's difficult to say if Qohen is trapped in the neural net forever.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Bainsley, although she doesn't have sex with her clients. She's a bit more like a more Interactive Camgirl with a Heart of Gold.
- I Am Legion: The strange variation — Qohen, when using personal pronouns, opts to use we/us instead of I/me. He starts to refer to himself in the singular before it's all over.
- I Just Want to Be Special: What Qohen wanted to be when he was a younger man. When he realized that this probably wasn't the case, he sunk into depression and several self-destructive vices.
- Insufferable Genius: Qohen, Bob, and probably Management.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Bob turns out to be one of these as he and Qohen gradually bond over the course of their partnership.
- Logical Fallacies: In order to learn if life has value, Qohen must use a computer to make zero equal 100%. Naturally, this proves difficult.
- He apparently gets closer than anyone else had before. However, once he learns what the Zero Theorem actually is, he hits a big snag as he doesn't want it to be true.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Zigzagged with Bainsley. At first it seems as though her sole ambition is to help Qohen snap out of his funk, then we learn that she's being paid by Management to befriend him, but eventually she falls in love with him for real, and tries to persuade him to run away with her.
- Meaningful Name: Qohen's name comes from the Hebrew title of the book of Ecclesiastes, which suggests questions such as "What is the Meaning of Life?"
- Missed the Call: Qohen believes that a mysterious phone call that he accidentally disconnected himself from held the answers as to what his purpose in life was.
- New Media Are Evil: Gilliam has explained in an interview that the movie acts as "a warning against the perils of a digitised existence."
- No Social Skills: Qohen, he is so social-phobic that he wants to work at home. He wants to stay inside his church to avoid contact with the outside world. It doesn't work as more people enter his church without his request.
- Pastiche: Gilliam has described it as a "Borgesian fable".
- The Rain Man: Qohen has a lot of Autistic traits; his social awkwardness, his fear of people, his fear of being touched, his intelligence over social skills and his obsession with getting his phone call of the answer to the meaning of existence.
- Scenery Gorn: The Cyber Punk setting, as well as the black holes seen in the trailers.
- Shout-Out: To The Matrix, at least.
- The pads Qohen puts over his eyes when he sleeps look like the eye-pads used on the test subjects in La Jetée
- Also, the in-your-face in-universe gag when Bob tells Qohen he's "The One" foretold by the Oracle
- When Joby shows Qohen the Mancom mainframe, he jokingly says to him, "Now be vewwy vewwy quiet. We're hunting entities."
- Stepford Smiler: For all his smiling and genial temperament, Joby implies that he suffers from deep paranoia and anxiety from having his mind nearly destroyed trying to solve the Zero Theorem in his youth.
- Thematic Series: According to Gilliam, this is his third in a series of dystopian satires. The other movies are Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
- There Are No Therapists: In a way. Psychologists seem to have been replaced wholesale by computer programs who perform similar functions. They're quite professional and friendly, occasionally giving genuinely good advice, but they can be hacked by outside parties, programmed to give you very specific counseling to nudge you toward certain courses of action, and doctor-patient confidentiality is about as nonexistent as the actual doctor is.