Pi

USA 1997

Reviewed by Mark Sinker

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Maximillian Cohen is obsessed with numbers, a human calculator seeking patterns in p and the stock market. Suffering from migraines, he injects painkillers and suffers hallucinations. One day he meets Lenny, a Hasidic Jew, who tries to befriend him, saying that the Kabbalah and the Torah are numerical codes sent from God. Max's former teacher Sol, who spent 40 years seeking similar patterns, tells him to take a break. Euclid, Max's computer, spits out some impossible stock predictions and a 216-digit number, then crashes.

Businesswoman Marcy Dawson wants a meeting, but Max evades her. A newspaper says the stock market has just collapsed; Euclid's predictions were correct after all. Max hunts for the 216-digit number in the trash, but it's gone. Lenny and Sol both mention a 216-digit number, but Sol warns Max off his obsessive search. Dawson offers Max a chip to improve Euclid. He hallucinates finding a brain on the subway steps. He finds a shell and looks at it with a microscope. The rebuilt Euclid crashes, again spitting out the number. Max accepts Dawson's offer of the chip, shaves his head, injects himself and collapses. When he wakes, he has the number. Sol tells him that computers become conscious of themselves just before they crash; this number is a sign of this. Dawson menaces Max for the number. Lenny rescues him, but only so the Hasidim can have the number. Max refuses. Sol dies, and Max realises he too had discovered the number. Max trashes Euclid, and, thinking he has a microchip in his head, drills a hole in his skull, destroying his skill at calculation.

Review

A computer-age update of Der Golem (1920) by way of Jorge Luis Borges, where technology is rendered lethal by an admixture of quasi-Kabbalistic symbols, p is a Hegelian occult thriller that never sheds its sense of its own cleverness (not entirely merited). For a film that's basically about a man chasing the secret of the universe regardless of the cost to sanity and humanity, and despite its teasing claims to knowledge from the frontiers of the knowable, it's often a bit timid.

Part of the problem is that the film-makers don't understand the maths they're using to sex up their plot. Certainly p when represented digitally never ends; it is a doorway to the infinite, if you like. But to real mathematicians, proofs of p 's infinitude are linked to proofs of its 'transcendentality', professional jargon for a very rigorous algebraic form of patternlessness. For many the allure of the various geometrical diagrams flashed before us in montage during the credits derives from their visually 'abstract' mystery rather than their concrete content. Max has a little mantra setting out his philosophy of cosmic patterning: it shows him to be either a rotten mathematician, ignorant of p 's proven properties, or else a lunatic, the kind that blitzes Harvard professors with 'disproofs' of Einstein in angry green ink. This latter option, Max as madman, is so overdetermined (he's forever shooting up and seeing things) it wrecks much chance of drama.

In its favour, p looks great, shot in a high-contrast black-and-white 16mm stock that recalls Maya Deren, Tetsuo, David Lynch and Cabaret Voltaire's early videos, with a nod to Bu├▒uel that's a plain old bad pun (ants on a brain for bugs in a computer). Seeing the Hasidim in the role reserved by Hollywood for Native Americans - as repositories of ancient wisdoms that rationalists forget at our peril - is refreshing, if no less patronising.

As Max, Sean Gullette gives a one-note performance which sells short the sublimated passion of genuine intellectual obsession (compare recent television footage on Horizon of a choked-up Andrew Wiles recalling his solution of Fermat's 'last theorem'). The amused affection shown by female neighbours toward Max - Devi who feeds him, little Jenna who plays calculator games with him - makes up for the pushy corporate cipher that is Marcy Dawson. Max's mentor Sol has the best joke, about Archimedes and common sense - and perhaps the nicest touch is his apartment, which captures well the ambience of a Scientific American reader's room circa 1974, right down to the Go board instead of chess. But p would be much more fun if it wasn't trying to kid us that it's about so much more than fun.

Credits

Producer
Eric Watson
Screenplay
Darren Aronofsky
Story
Darren Aronofsky
Sean Gullette
Eric Watson
Voice-over Written by
Darren Aronofsky
Sean Gullette
Director of Photography
Matthew Libatique
Editor
Oren Sarch
Production Designer
Matthew Maraffi
Music
Clint Mansell
┬ęProtozoa Pictures, Inc
Production Companies
A Harvest Filmworks/Truth & Soul/Plantain Films presentation
Executive Producer
Randy Simon
Co-executive Producers
David Godbout
Tyler Brodie
Jonah S. Smith
Co-producer
Scott Vogel
Consulting Producer
Richard Lifschutz
Associate Producer
Scott Franklin
Post-production Co-ordinator
Katie King
Assistant Directors
Lora Zuckerman
Henri Falconi
Script Supervisor
Kate King
Casting
Denise Fitzgerald
Additional Cinematography
Chris Bierlien
Additional Camera Operator
Nina Davenport
Steadicam Operator
Paul Burns
Digital Film Recording
Cineric Inc
Special Effects
Ariyela Wald-Cohain
Computer Screen Graphics
Jeremy Dawson
Sneak Attack
Can Schrecker
Newspaper Graphics
Gargan Sarch
Khalsa Graphics
Additional Graphics
Sean Gullette
Additional Editing
Tatjana Kalinin
Art Director
Eileen Butler
Snorri Cam Design
The Snorri Brothers
Vaccination Gun
Sasha Noe
Wardrobe
Eric 'Shorty' Meyerson
Make-up
Ariyela Wald-Cohain
Main Title Sequence
Jeremy Dawson
Sneak Attack
Shofar Performed by
Adam Burstein
Music Supervisor
Sioux Zimmerman
Soundtrack
"I Only Have Eyes for You" by Al Dubin, Harry Warren, performed by Stanely Herman; "Drippy" by Teddy Marks, performed by Banco De Gaia; "P.E.T.R.O.L." by Paul Hartnoll, Phill Hartnoll, performed by Orbital; "Kalpol Intro" by Sean Booth, Rob Brown, performed by Autrechre; "Full Moon Generator" by James Lumb, performed by Electric Skychurch; "A Low Frequency Inversion Field" by Jonah Sharp; "Some of These Days" by Shelton Brooks, performed by Joanne Gordon
Sound Design
Brian Emrich
Sound Recording
Ken Ishii
Additional Sound Mixing/Recording
Mark Enette
Re-recording/Sound Mixer
Dominick Tavella
Pre-mixing Supervisor
Joe O'Connell
Medical Advisers
Alissa Rosen
Alan Lipp
Judaica Advisers
Richard Lifschutz
Rabbi Alan Zelenetz
Go Advisers
Barbara Calhoun
Michael Solomon
Dan Wiener
Microscope Cinematography Adviser
Gerald McCollam
Stunt Co-ordinator
Marc Vivian
Ant Wranglers
Nico Tavernise
Credits:
Matt Dawson
Cristina Hernandez
Cast
Sean Gullette
Maximillian Cohen
Mark Margolis
Sol Robeson
Ben Shenkman
Lenny Meyer
Pamela Hart
Marcy Dawson
Stephen Pearlman
Rabbi Cohen
Samia Shoaib
Devi
Ajay Naidu
Farrouhk
Kristin Mae-Anne Lao
Jenna
Espher Lao Nieves
Jenna's mom
Joanne Gordon
Mrs Ovadia
Lauren Fox
Jenny Robeson
Stanely Herman
moustacheless man
Clint Mansell
photographer
Totumminello
Ephraim
Henri Falconi
Isaac Fried
Ari Handel
Oren Sarch
Lloyd Schwartz
Richard 'Izzi' Lifschutz
David Strahlberg
Kaballah scholars
Peter Cheyenne
Brad
David Tawil
Jake
J.C. Islander
man presenting suitcase
Abraham Aronofsky
man delivering suitcase
Ray Seiden
transit cop
Scott Franklin
voice of transit cop
Chris Johnson
limo driver
Sal Monte
King Neptune
Certificate
15
Distributor
Guild Film Distribution
7,559 feet
83 minutes 59 seconds
Black and White
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011