Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie – Pi (1998)

Pi was the first movie from director Darren Aronofsky.  He would go on to do Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2011).  [You can read my review of Black Swan here.]  Aronofsky co-wrote Pi with the star of the movie Sean Gullette.  Pi is a very low budget first feature that nevertheless manages to strike a chord with many viewers.  It is also an early look at the kinds of things that Aronofsky would continue to put into his movies.  If you only know him from his later films, this movie would be interesting for you to see.

The premise is that mathematician Maximillian Cohen (Gullette) is trying to build and program his own computer, named Euclid, to predict the stock market.  He believes that all things can be understood by finding the underlying patterns of numbers that describe them and that everything has these numbers.  In addition to being paranoid, Cohen suffers from migraine headaches that started when he defied his parents and stared into the sun for several minutes as a child.

One day Euclid spits out some predictions, then a 216 digit number, then crashes.  The 216 digits appear to be random and Cohen throws them out in disgust.  The next day he finds out that Euclid’s first few stock market predictions turned out to be accurate.  He tries to find the other numbers he threw out, but cannot.

He goes to his old professor and mentor, played by Mark Margolis (who has appeared in every Aronofsky film to date.)  The mentor used to research the nature of Pi, but for reasons unexplained stopped years before.  When Cohen mentions the random number, the mentor asks if it was 216 digits long.  He tells Cohen that he ran across the same number years before and urges caution.

Cohen runs into a Hasidic Jew, who goes into numerical patterns in the Torah.  He explains to Cohen that the Hasidim have been searching for a number in the Torah that will help them understand God.  The number is, you guessed it, 216 digits long.

Cohen is also tracked down by some powerful Wall Street types who tell him they want to buy the results of his research.  In return they offer him a powerful new computer chip to help him fix Euclid.  Instead of crunching Wall Street numbers, Cohen has it analyze the Torah.  It crashes again – after spitting out the same 216 digit number.

Cohen starts getting pressure from all sides.  His mentor finally reveals that in trying to understand this number years ago he ended up suffering a stroke.  Cohen’s headaches have been getting worse and worse, and he even is starting to get a bump on his head over the section of the brain that is mathematical.  Both the Wall Streeters and the Hasidim want the number that Cohen’s computer produced.  All this pressure is getting to Cohen and you don’t know what he might end up doing.

Making things more interesting in the movie is that as Cohen gets deeper and deeper into it, he may be hallucinating that things are happening.  What we are seeing on the screen might just be all in Cohen’s head, not really happening.  This will sound familiar to anyone who saw Black Swan.

Don’t let all this talk about math discourage you.  You do not need to like math, nor have any special mathematical knowledge to see the movie.  In fact, it’s probably better if you know nothing because much of the mathematical talk does not hold up.  Some things are a little off and a few things are completely inaccurate.  Even the value of Pi shown at the beginning of the movie is not correct.  Some people have tried to read a deeper meaning into these discrepancies, but I’m not a believer of this.  My interpretation is that this is a very low budget film, written by a couple of guys who tossed in some math talk, and who either didn’t have the money to re-shoot scenes where stuff was wrong, or who didn’t even realize they had made mistakes.

One thing that I’m sure was intentional was the fact that the number is 216 digits long.  216 = 6 times 6 times 6, or in other words, 666 (the Number of the Beast.)

Some people have asked why the movie is titled “Pi” when there is not much in the movie dealing with it.  My take on this is that the filmmakers figured that Pi was the most well known mathematical constant and that it would convey to audiences the idea that gets delved into during the movie’s run.

Something to make you think in regards to the title: it is simultaneously the shortest movie title ever, usually shown as the one character symbol for Pi, and the longest movie title ever, since the value of Pi is an infinite string of digits.  As of the mid 2000s Pi had been calculated to over one trillion places.  You can actually download the entire string as a text document with thousands of pages in it, if you want a little light reading.

This is not your straightforward, everything tied up neatly in a bow kind of movie.  If you don’t like movies that are open to interpretation, you may not like this one.  For everyone else, give this movie a try.  If you are a fan of Aronofsky’s better known films, but have not seen Pi, then you will definitely want to check it out.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]

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