Max Cohen is a math prodigy. Since a frequently-referenced incident when he was six years old and stared directly into the sun, he has an unmatched facility for numbers - along with frequent migraine headaches, the pain so crippling he experiences hallucinations.
For the past 10 years, Max has worked to find the underlying pattern in what he feels is a system of almost-organic ordered chaos: the stock market. It's when his homemade supercomputer spits out two correct predictions - and a number 216 digits long - before melting down, the trouble truly starts. Max finds himself the target not only of a Wall Street firm using Mafia methods, but also a sect of Jewish mystics attempting to unfurl the mysteries of the Kabbalah. That lengthy number is much more than it seems, and this knowledge is driving Max ever closer to the brink of insanity.
Pi is, to put it simply, a rather unique movie... I don't think I've ever watched a mathematical horror story before. Though the story is driven by Max's descent into madness - I should actually say "more overt madness" as Max is a very odd bird - it's incredibly brainy, too. The arcane math, number theory, game theory and Jewish mysticism is all quite real. The result is a movie that engages the viewer on several levels, and one of those levels - the left brain, in charge of math - isn't used to being employed this much during a movie.
The picture is crystal-clear - perhaps too clear, as the movie is shot in a high-contrast black and white, and there are times you're tempted to count the grains in the film. The sound, though mono, is similarly clear. The movie cost only $60,000 - don't expect to be blown away - but this is definitely the best way to own this film.
Artisan does another independent feature proud, starting with the kinetic interactive menu (Wow! Dancing möbius strips!). They follow this with an enviable amount of extras. There are three deleted scenes, with and without commentary; two versions of the trailer; a "behind the scenes" montage of home video that takes the production from set building through the Sundance awards ceremony (Darren Aronofsky won the Director's Award); the official music video; a few panels from the "Book of Ants" graphic novel; and two excellent text pieces, one on the number pi itself, and a nicely comprehensive section of production Notes. There are two commentary tracks: one, by Aronofsky, is quite good, talking about technical issues, where the various story points come from, or just providing interesting anecdotes about the shooting process. The second, by Sean Gullette, who plays Max, is a little spottier, and dwells on the process of developing the backstories of various characters and collaborating with Aronofsky. Both are very informative, but some will find the holes in Gullette's track annoying.
Hard to pin down, Pi isn't an easy movie to recommend. The high-contrast monochrome may look entirely too "underground" for most viewers, and unlike many movies, it absolutely demands complete attention as its story unfolds. Oddly, many times I was reminded of the industrial horror movie Tetsuo: The Iron Man - odd because Pi is so much the opposite of the visceral shudders Tetsuo supplied (Max's visions of his own brain infested with ants notwithstanding). The shivers Pi produces are almost purely intellectual. Math is a foreign land to most of us, a place we only vaguely know and try not to deal with too often; it is the Transylvania of our minds, and Pi takes us for a trip among the creatures who dwell there.
Dr. Freex, 9/12/00