Review: Pi (1998)

Pi is a bizarre, surprisingly brutal early treat from the now-celebrated director Darren Aronofsky.

When Darren Aronofsky made Pi fifteen years ago, it’s unlikely that he’d have envisaged how popular it would go on to become. It’s now seen as a classic gritty sci-fi, very much based in the world we live in, but one that turns on a slightly different axis. We follow Max, a mathematician with a theory – if numbers are the basis for much of nature, and patterns can be found everywhere, can he use that knowledge to predict the whims of the stock market? He’s dedicated his life and most of his living space to answering that question, turning his tiny New York apartment into the inside of a computer, with delicate mainframes hanging off the walls.

It’s not until he meets Lenny, a number theorist whose work is centred around discovering the code that he thinks might lie at the heart of the Torah (which is actually a coded message from God), that Max finds a spiritual impetus for his work. The only thing Euclid, his computer, had spat out was a 216 digit number and a valuation for a company on the FTSE at 1/10th of its value, but Max had thrown that away. When Lenny mentions that their Torah code search consists of a hunt for a 216 digit number, and that the drastically low valuation turned out to be true, Max realises that he might just have found what he was searching for all along. He tries to find that number again, but at what cost to his sanity?

It was Aronofsky’s debut, and it features many of his key themes – pursuit of an idea to the detriment of everything else, obsessive behaviours, the surreal and the real existing side-by-side; and while it’s less polished than his later work, it’s no less affecting. In style, you could compare its pounding score and grainy, fast-paced cinematography to the Tetsuo series. It was shot on 16mm, so giving it a Blu-ray re-release is slightly weird – all it does is make that grain crystal clear, without the image becoming any crisper. In some places, the shot is so blown-out that you can barely tell what’s going on. That’s fine for video, or DVD, but it feels like a waste of Blu-ray technology. Blu-ray may now be standard, but sometimes better technology doesn’t always make for a better picture. You don’t get any more from Pi for it being in high definition, because that’s not the point. It’s rough and ready, it’s punk.

As the film goes on, the story becomes more and more bizarre, and the violence increases in frequency. You won’t see the ending coming, and much is left unexplained, but that’s no big deal. The film isn’t about clarity, and it isn’t about making things easy for the viewer. It’s a brain scrambler and it’s best watched with an open mind. Aronofsky might have polished his style somewhat in recent years, but this most definitely remains an Aronofsky film, and is important as any of the others. It’s the nightmarish vision of Black Swan, combined with the obsessive self-destruction of The Wrestler, with the grit of Tetsuo. Sound weird? Well, Pi is weird.

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