With April being Mathematics Awareness Month it is calculable to explore Movies about Math. Though, sinister patterns become apparent when reflecting on some of the better mathematical films. For one, Mathematicians in movies are often depicted as lunatics who trip on the line between genius and insanity.
No wonder students are so freaked out by math in school; the cinematic culture of mathematics implies it will drive you nuts. There have been a few inspiring movies about the power of math, but for the sake of argument here are 3 films about math in the realm of madness. These are not just movies with characters who happen to be mathematicians, but films that completely inhabit math as a character in itself.
“Cube” (1997) Director Vincenzo Natali made his directorial debut with the sci-fi horror film, “Cube,” which quickly garnered a cult following. For reasons beyond plot, several characters find themselves imprisoned by a hellish cube labyrinth. Its like “Hellraiser” meets the “The Twilight Zone” and the only thing that can save them is Math.
The math in “Cube” is highly complex and a mathematics professor was hired as a consultant on the film. Prime number tricks and decoded Cartesian coordinates spin out of control as paranoia grips their fate. Atop the multilayered complexity of Natali’s brilliant film, it taps into something ingeniously simple. Imagine being locked in a series of cubes and forced to solve nearly impossible math problems for fear of your life. It’s a student’s worst nightmare.
“Pi” (1998) Interestingly enough, Darren Aronofsky made his directorial debut with a film about mathematics as well. “Pi” explores the psychological breakdown of a young, gifted mathematician who is trying to crack a life-threatening code. If Max succeeds in unraveling secrets of the Golden Spiral and Pi, he could crack the stock market and unleash a messianic Kabbalah event. Or he could just go crazy and everything he is experiencing is a warped perception of paranoid fantasies.
The film immediately put Aronofsky on the map as a director who creates atmospheric terror through profound ideas with minimalist filmmaking. The world of “Pi” is presented as black and white, both literally through cinematography and figuratively through the characters. As Max and his mentor play an ongoing mathematical board game of Go, their strategy reflects their opposing views of the universe. The mentor subscribes to an unknowable chaos theory and finds comfort in its mathematical beauty. Max sees patterns that yearn to be unlocked and slips into the chaos he refuses to see.
“A Beautiful Mind” (2001) Based on the true story of mathematician John Nash, Ron Howard’s Oscar winning film “A Beautiful Mind” one again explores the mathematical rabbit hole of paranoia. Like Max in “Pi” John Nash chased the mathematical patterns he so intimately saw in the world, while neglecting the realty that crumbled around him.
The film, starring Russell Crow in one of his most honest performances, follows Nash on his rise to mathematical stardom and delusional fall into paranoid schizophrenia. The math in the film, like “Cube” and “Pi,” is an unattainable force that surrounds its characters. It is god-like in its power to elevate them to transcendence and equally destroy them like scurrying ants on a hill.
With these 3 films, one can’t help but wonder: do numbers make us paranoid? Does the concrete presence of something infinite baffle us into a paranoid whirlwind? If you’re celebrating Mathematics Awareness Month, perhaps you’d enjoy more uplifting fare. Films like “Stand and Deliver” or “Good Will Hunting” portray mathematicians and math teachers who triumph over adversity.
Filmmaking Advice: if you’re going to make a breakthrough, write a film about Math. Not only did Vincenzo Natali and Darren Aronofsky write and direct a debut about Math, but Matt Damon and Ben Affleck made their screenwriting debut with “Good Will Hunting.” Jodie Foster’s directorial debut was also a film about a math prodigy, “Little Man Tate.” The odds are in favor of mathematical fascination; just don’t let the numbers get to you.