Review: Pi (1998)

Aaron M. Renn


Conclusion: A Masterpiece

Warning: Minor SPOILERS

Though not billed as a science fiction film, Pi (the debut film by director Darren Aronofsky) has a number of science fiction elements to it that I think would make it appeal to the SF fan. Plus, it is an all around excellent film that should appeal to almost anyone.

Protagonist Max Cohen is a mathematician who specialies in number theory. With the help of his homebrew computer Euclid, he is attempting to find patterns in the stock market that will enable him to predict stock prices. Why he is doing this is never made clear, though he emphatically denies that it is for finanical gain. Almost from the very beginning of the film, we see that Max suffers from paranoia, some type of epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder. My speculation is that finding patterns in the market is just one manifestation of his obsessive/compulsive problems.

Max bases his search on three postulates: 1) Mathematics is the language of nature 2) Everthing around us can be understood and represented by numbers 3) If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge, thus there are patterns everywhere in nature.

His search for order in the stock market is frustrating. Euclid prints out predictions that are inevitably wrong. Adding to Max's frustration are various people who resolutely refuse to leave him alone, including a head hunter (ie, recruiter) and an Orthodox Jew seeking mathematical order in the Torah. When Euclid prints out a group of non-sense predictions, then crashes after spewing a seemingly random 216 digit number on the monitor, Max is ready to give up his quest in disgust. That's when things really start getting interesting. Because you see, the nonsense stock predictions turn out to be right on target.

This film makes use of a number of classic SF type themes to great effect. None seems cliched or over contrived. Examples are:

  • There is a fundamental truth that underlies everything that is the key to unlimited power for those who discover it.

  • Ancient civilizations understood this truth, but it was lost long ago when those civilizations were destroyed

  • Some truths are too terrible for man to know. Knowing them can drive a man insane. Conversely, one must already be insane in order to comprehend the true reality.

  • The setting is a near futuristic world where everything has gotten worse, not better. The terrain is bleak, with only small glimpes of humanity and warmth.

Also of note is the "retro" appearance of technology such as Max's rotary dial phone and the computer (Euclid) made from dryer vents, 70's CRT displays, and typewriters. It reminded me of something out of Brazil.

I should mention that the number pi actually has virtually nothing to do with the film. Reviews that claim Max is obsessed with finding patterns in the number pi are confused.

The film is shot in a grainy black and white, with many scenes and images deliberately out of focus. I'm no expert on film effects so can't give any technical details, but the whole thing seems to give the impression that Max (who lives in a small apartment in New York's Chinatown) inhabits a very claustrophic and somewhat scary world. The music is eerie, instense, and continuous. This film is first and foremost a psychological thriller and the cinematography and score set the tone masterfully. This is one instense film.

I'd rate Pi as the best film I have seen so far this year. It is the only one that I would be willing to go see again. In fact, I think I will just so I can find things I missed and perhaps re-interpret a lot of what I saw the first time. I highly recommend seeing it. One warning, I don't know what the film is rated, but it is not suitable for young children. Enjoy.