Pi (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Pi, the letter, is a character in the Greek alphabet roughly equivalent to the English "p." Pi, the mathematical notation, is commonly used to represent the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Pi, the movie, is Darren Aronofsky's debut feature (and the winner of a directing award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival), an independent science fiction thriller that combines questions about God and infinity with the personal struggle of one man to regain control of his life.

Pi is actually the second low-budget, no-effects science fiction movie I have seen this year. The other, Hilary Brougher's The Sticky Fingers of Time, will be released by Strand Releasing during the Fall. I must admit to liking the approach embraced by Pi and Sticky because the monetary limitations have spawned creative scripts with unique solutions. Without ILM and a $100 million budget to fall back upon, film makers who venture into this arena must be prepared to truly engage the minds of their audiences instead of relying upon a DTS sound system and state of the art visuals to generate oohs and aahs.

Pi is the story of Max Cohen (ably portrayed by Sean Gullette), a computer geek with a genius for mathematics. Socially, Max is completely inept. Aside from occasionally showing off his arithmetic abilities to a girl who lives in his apartment building, he avoids all human contact, including any interaction with his attractive next door neighbor (Samia Shoaib), who shows an interest in him. Max lives by three basic principles: (1) mathematics is the language of nature, (2) everything can be represented and understood through numbers, and (3) there are patterns in nature. His objective is to use his home-built supercomputer, Euclid, to analyze the patterns in the financial markets to predict the exact performance of every stock. During the course of his studies, he encounters a mysterious string of 216 digits, and, when a Jewish numerologist (Ben Shenkman) becomes aware of this, he confides in Max that "the pattern in the Torah is 216 digits," and this discovery may hold the key to unlocking God's true name. Max, who doesn't believe in God, is more interested when his mentor (Mark Margolis) reveals that he once encountered a "bug" of 216 digits when he was investigating Pi.

Max's mathematical brilliance comes at a price, however: he has frequent, debilitating headaches and seizures that send him into a bizarre state of consciousness. During those episodes, he encounters people who stalk him then disappear, and, on one occasion, he discovers a brain lying on the ground in a New York City subway station. The key to Max's genius and pain appears to be a mark on his skull, and, perhaps in order to eliminate the one, he must sacrifice the other.

Although the plot of Pi is eccentric (even for a science fiction effort), Aronofsky's message is actually quite simple: life does not fit into neat patterns, and complete control is impossible. Oddly, this is also the underlying premise of the two Jurassic Park movies, proving that certain concepts are universal. However, the central theme is only one of many fascinating subjects tapped into by the screenplay. For example, Max's quest to use numerical patterns to model every aspect of the universe reveals some interesting quirks about the Hebrew language. (In Hebrew, all letters have a numerical equivalent. The number for "father" is 3. The number for "mother" is 41. 41+3=44, which is the number for "child.") In addition to all of its intellectually-stimulating aspects, Pi also works as a character study of an obsessed individual whose single-minded goal blinds him to everything else, including health, friendship, love, and even sanity.

Aronofsky elected to shoot the film in black-and-white, which lends a dream-like atmosphere to all of the proceedings. Pi transports us to a world that is like yet unlike our own, and, in its mysterious familiarity, is eerie, intense, and compelling. Reality is a fragile commodity, but, because the script is well-written and the central character is strongly developed, it's not hard to suspend disbelief. As the movie draws to a conclusion, it perhaps becomes a little too ambitious in trying to unify all the great questions of existence. At that point, Pi slides with only limited success into an exploration of metaphysics and spirituality. Nevertheless, I prefer movies that take risks like this, even when they're flawed, to those that try for a safe, formula-driven resolution. So, while I didn't necessarily buy everything that transpired in the final fifteen minutes, I was surprised by much of it, and Aronofsky never lost my attention. For anyone who wants a movie to feed their intelligence and imagination more than their eyes and ears, Pi is a solid choice. It probably deserves 3.1416 stars, but since my scale doesn't support that, I'll round it off to three.

Pi (United States, 1998)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Cinematography: Matthew Ubatique
Music: Clint Mansell
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 1998-07-10
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1