(Darren Aronofsky, US, 1997)
You want left-of-field? You got it! How about a mathematics-obsessed computer genius named Max who was told as a child by his mother never to look directly at the sun, but did and has suffered every day since, despite copious amounts of self-administered injections and drugs? Max believes three things of the world in which he lives. One: that mathematics is the language of the universe, two: that nature can be expressed in numbers, and three: there are patterns everywhere in nature. Max's hermit-like existence enables him to build a computer system dedicated to solving complex mathematical problems and, in particular, to study the transcendental number Pi. One day during a test run, the system crashes and spews out what looks like junk data. Following discussions with his mentor Sol, and after a chance encounter with a fellow Jew obsessed with unearthing the true name of God, Max realises that the 216-digit number left after the systems crash is the most important thing he could possibly discover. The number interacts with Pi, the resultant figure possibly holding the secret to everything from stock market predictions to the Almighty's real monicker. Others are monitoring Max's research and they too see the potential in the arcane figure. Soon, suffering from increased migraines, nosebleeds, hallucinations, and despair, Max's dreams of bringing order out of chaos to the world have to be put aside in order to protect his well-being as two disparate groups of fanatics pursue the mathematician so as to learn the secrets of the all-knowing 216 digit-number.
Shot in high-contrast black and white (evoking memories of Eraserhead, and Night Owl) on a budget of $60,000, director Aronofsky can at least be applauded for making what sounds like a Hollywood studio's nightmare of a story idea into a fascinating film. The opening credits set against a background of fast edits of monochrome fractal patterns and geometric shapes accompanied by a pounding techno soundtrack (by ex-Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell) are an exciting appetiser for things to come. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't hold up to those opening couple of minutes. The story itself is totally gripping and, despite the subject matter, easy to follow (and this from someone who never got as far as O'Level maths!). Where the film fails is in its lack of humanity. The main character of Max is a loner who avoids all adults bar his retired tutor and the little Chinese girl from downstairs who likes to test his mathematical brain with problems on her calculator. This gives us some tiny insight into the mind of Max who since his childhood trauma never seems to have settled into the normal adult world. He finds solace in numbers rather than people but both the script (co-written by Aronofsky) and the direction make no attempt to anchor the bizarre events around people the audience can relate to. The problem is, the only 'normal' people in the film (the above-mentioned little girl and an attractive Asian female neighbour who tries to help Max at every opportunity but is abruptly rejected) have the least amount of screen time. To a lesser extent, Sol the mentor is comparatively normal but even he is kept on the fringes by Aronofsky, who really only uses him to help keep the audience abreast of the twisting events. By concentrating on Max, and the sinister financial organisation and cabal of fanatical Jews who are after his secret, the film may effectively portray a person's decent into obsessive madness but it is one with which you feel no empathy.
Nevertheless, credit should be given for pulling off such an enterprise in so accomplished a manner; although I'd stop far short of adding to the over-the-top quotes that have surrounded the film's UK release ("One of the decade's true originals" according to Time Out). Sure, the story is original but everything else from the photography and editing to the narrative and soundtrack is staple stuff for independent cinema. As always with this visually strong style of filmmaking, it's easy to overlook the film's shortcomings: the fact that most of the performances are merely adequate (particularly Sean Gullette in the lead), that the home-built computer system is ludicrous (if cool-looking). A slim sub-plot about the mysterious financial dudes tempting Max with the latest top secret computer chip is especially cheesy "Wow, you've got an X51 chip - they're not even publicly acknowledged!" or words to that effect from Max as he stares in nerdy awe at a chip contained (for no apparent reason) in a metal briefcase big enough to hold thousands of the damn things. A little more humour wouldn't have gone amiss either, with such a dry subject matter it's easy for the finished result to look occasionally po-faced at best, pretentious at worst. As indicated at the beginning of this review, the bottom line is that if you're interested in something out of the ordinary, then you could do a lot worse and I recommend that it's worth seeing for curiosity value alone. Those with a similar taste in music to my own might want to check out the soundtrack which contains the likes of Orbital, Autechre and Banco de Gaia amongst others.