Monday, October 11, 2004

Movie Review: Pi

United States, 1998
U.S. Release Date: 7/24/98 (limited)
Running Time: 1:25
Rated: R (Violence, language, disturbing images)
Cast: Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis, Ben Shenkman, Pamela Hart, Stephen Pearlman, Samia Shoaib

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Producer: Eric Watson
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Music: Clint Mansell
Studio: Artisan Entertainment

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To most, pi is just a mathematical symbol that equals 3.1415926, and so on—to an infinite number of decimal places. This non-repeating and non-terminating decimal, which comes from the division of a circle’s circumference by its diameter, is a mathematical marvel that has mesmerized scientists and laymen alike. Most recently researchers at a leading Japanese university have calculated pi to 1.24 trillion decimal places.

However, others know Pi to be an eerie and intriguing independent motion-picture that juggles the concepts of math, religion, and chaos. Created under a slender sum of $60,000, Pi is not only a fast-paced sci-fi feature, but it is also a superb character study of a man on the brink of insanity.

Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a mathematician who is on the threshold of making the most eminent discovery of all time. For years, Max has been working with both his mathematical super-computer, Euclid, and the number theory under the following assumptions: 1) Mathematics is the language of nature. 2) Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3) If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge; therefore, there are patterns in nature. With these conjectures in mind, Max has been trying to crack the code behind the outwardly infinite pi and its interconnection to the seemingly random and chaotic stock market, and he is getting closer and closer to mastering it by the second.

Throughout his quest to attain this form of enlightenment, Max simultaneously descents into madness. Max’s hypothesis begins to hone in on him and eat at his soul; he continually experiences delusions, nosebleeds, and pounding headaches to the point where his pills and subcutaneous shots cannot lull him back to sanity.

In the interim, Max is being hunted by both Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), an investor from a firm who learns of Max’s doings and who is determined to hire him as a consultant, and Lenny Maier (Ben Shenkman), a Kaballah Rabbi who discovers that Max may have the key to a 216 digit number that reveals the lost and true name of God. In a clash to obtain the code, it’s an all-out tug-of-war between the greedy stock brokers and the Hasidic Jews, and Max is the rope.

With his first full-length feature film, Darren Aronofsky has helmed a picture far-superior to most freshmen efforts. Here, Aronofsky takes a bold step into Hollywood and already establishes himself as one of the best of the up-and-coming. And, with his outstanding sophomore production, Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky has proved that he is here for the long run and has the potential to have plenty of good material up his sleeve. In terms of both the directors’ and screenwriters’ classroom, Aronofsky – the Harvard grad – takes a seat right up front with the best of them. As long as he keeps it up, Aronofsky can be considered an astute auteur.

Aronofsky actually took the time to ensure that Pi was made using black-and-white reversal film stock. His budget did not restrict him to use the gritty-looking black and white; instead, it was used for stylistic purposes—to add an eerie “Twilight Zone”-esque feel to the film. Besides, Pi works without color. Math is nothing but black and white; there is only the proven and the unproven. In the long run, Pi adeptly makes itself look like a window into the past rather than a new age film that combines the technological advancements of present day with the age-old mysteries of the Milky Way.

Pi uses the reoccurring quote of “When I was six, my mother told me not to look at the sun; so, I did it anyway.” This establishes the severity of Max’s obsession; he has to keep searching for the cipher in utter wonder of what he might find. This is the same thing as coming across that mysterious red button that reads, “DO NOT PUSH.” Sooner or later, someone is bound to push it just to see what results. By doing so, the upshot could be catastrophic, but nonetheless, with the human brain, speculation tends to trump logic.

While most science-fiction films devote more time to action-oriented, inane car chases and unnecessary explosions than the scientific and surrealist aspects of the storyline, Pi is atypical when it comes to mainstream affairs. Pi takes the time to enlighten you while you are being entertained. This picture not only cunningly incorporates Greek mythology into its cinemascape, but it also sways on Faustian themes galore. Pi also encompasses both the critical analysis of an inestimable number of spirals that can be found in the universe, and Pythagoras’s fascinating golden rectangle. It also takes the time to cover both how the Japanese game of Go can serve as a microcosm of the universe and how ants can be metaphorically compared to humans—in that we are both only small vessels from God here to serve a purpose. All things considered, pi may be an irrational number, but Pi, the picture, works with one high level of rationale.

Pi is truly an original and captivating work—one that will without a doubt weld you to your seat and affix your eyes to the screen. And, with its tantalizing techno score from Clint Mansell, it also provides an absorbing background for your ears. When you happen to add a phenomenal writer/director, subtract all of the Hollywood conventions, and multiply the amount of action across your synapse by ten, you end up with Pi. Pi is one slice of cinema that cannot be skipped, and on a four star scale, Pi deserves more stars than its decimal equivalent. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2004