Cyberpunk Review » Pi

June 20, 2007


Movie Review By: SFAM

Year: 1998

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Sean Gullette

IMDB Reference

Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: Medium

Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: High

Key Cast Members:

  • Max Cohen: Sean Gullette
  • Sol Robeson: Mark Margolis
  • Ben Shenkman: Lenny Meyer
  • Pamela Hart: Marcy Dawson
Rating: 8 out of 10


Pi Screencap


Overview: With a production budget hovering around $60,000, first time film director Darren Aronofsky teamed up with actor Sean Gullette to create a powerful addition to the cyberpunk genre. Filmed entirely in grainy black and white handy cam type shots, Pi is an exploration of obsession. Pi ha an ever-increasing frenetic pacing, terrific acting and interesting ideas. Even though it occurs in current times (as opposed to near future as with most cyberpunk flicks), the cyberpunk nature of this flick is embedded both in its ideas and setting.


Pi Screencap


The Story: Max Cohen (played wonderfully by Sean Gullette) is a neurotic, genius mathematician who obsesses about trying to understand the stock market. He begins to think there is an underlying pattern that underlies the dynamics of the stock market – a pattern that can be explained in a 216 digit number. Max developeds an organic supercomputer that takes up the bulk of his apartment to further his search by developing tests and programs, but unfortunately, he still can’t find the answer. As his obsession deepens, he becomes tortured with headaches and nosebleeds.


Pi Screencap


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 everywhere in nature. So what about the stock market…
My hypothesis, within the stock market there is a pattern, right in front of me…


Pi Screencap


Max is paranoid in the extreme, and suspiciously assumes everyone is out to get him. Even his old teacher, Sol (Mark Margolis), comes under suspicion after cautioning Max to moderate his obsession. Max believes he is continually being followed (in fact he is). Finally, a Wall Street corporate representative named Marcy (Pamela Hart) offers him the use of a high-powered, secret chip to run his organic supercomputer – all she wants in return is insight into his results.


Pi Screencap


While getting coffee, Max meets a nice Hasidic Jew named Lenny (Ben Shenkman) who appears to have an interest in numerology. As Max gets to know him better, it turns out that Lenny is part of a group seeking God’s real name, which just happens to be a 216 digit number. This group believes that God has made Max his vessel, and in uncovering the secret of the stock market, Max will simultaneously be able to give them the key to salvation. As Max gets closer to finding the answer, it becomes clear that neither of these groups have Max’s best interest in mind - worse, they aren’t going to take “No” for an answer.


Pi Screencap


The Cinematography: Given that Aronofsky has so little to work with in terms of budget, its hard to poke too many holes here. The washed out feel serves to make the viewer feel as if they’ve been up as long as Max, with ten too many cups of coffee in their system. The grainy black & white visuals work for the most part, although often one is left with the idea that in experimenting to foster a frenetic feel, Aronofsky sometimes goes overboard. Case in point, the room spinning works wonderfully, but then is taken to annoying extremes. This overly artistic experimentation feel generally works wonderfully, but on occasion distracts more from the story and pacing than it adds.


Pi Screencap


The Sound: As frenetic as the visuals are, these are matched by fast-paced, industrial rhythms and sound FX. The keyboard-laden soundtrack perfectly paces the story, which goes from contemplative moments to fast-paced, paranoid chases and fantasies. Tracks are continually reset to show a resetting of the thought process in the movie, and then spin out of control, again mimicking the transition in the scenes. Pi is one of those movies where the sound is almost as critical to the mood as the visuals itself.


Pi Screencap


Genius With Insanity: In PI, Aronofsky explores the idea that genius often achieved in combination with insanity. Max Cohen’s mind is unique in that he is a master at number pattern assimilation. His obsession with a 216 digit number, which might be the key to understanding nature itself borders on both genius and insanity. Eventually Max starts to see his brain outside his body, sometimes covered with insects, crawling about. Max begins to imagine puncturing the mathematics portion of his brain to end the obsession. Instead, he continues on his quest. In essence, Max needs to become insane in order to truly tap into his genius.


Pi Screencap


Converging Knowledge Domains – Economics And Religion: One of the interesting facets of Pi is the degree to which overlapping knowledge domains are explored. In examining whether there is a 216 digit number, of which its meaning and syntax can explain both the stock market and God’s will, Aronofsky juxtaposes the meaning of humanity (God’s will) with society’s insane drive toward wealth creation. Worse, Aronofsky’s setting is a world in which our social context – our human-ness has devolved into a paranoid, lonely landscape, where socialization is no longer about friendship – it’s about survival of the fittest. Max is first and foremost alone. Everyone he interacts with has a nefarious motive. As we move toward a world that is divorced from humanity, one can’t help but wonder what our pattern-finding minds will devise. Aronofsky ‘s answer is clear – finding the stairway to heaven now becomes a by-product of seeking to greedily game the cornerstone of our society’s tally of winners and losers – the stock market.


Pi Screencap


Is Max’s Computer Self-Aware? I totally missed this connection, but Textpundit below makes an excellent case for this:


Okay, I get what you mean when you say “organic”… but I mean actually a small bit “organic”, as in animal. Remember when the computer comes up with the number the first time and then shorts out the processor? When Max goes to change the CPU out, he finds some kind of gooey, organic matter…almost like scrambled brain matter or something similar.

That’s where I came up with the idea that the computer became self-aware (even if only for a split second) when it found the number.


I need to watch this again, but the “gooey” matter that Max keeps finding seems clearly organic in nature. So either this is part of his paranoid delusions (like the external brain), or in fact his computer becomes self-aware. If so, it’s his computer, not Max, who is truly God’s vessel. This actually makes the movie quite a bit more interesting, especially when coupled with the idea that the “vessel” needs to be pure. Clearly no human fits this description, as Max points out to the Rabbi. But Max’s response, “It came to me!” is just as flawed - perhaps it came to his now self-aware computer, who is pure. I’m beginning to think I was just a bit slow in grasping this - did anyone else get this interpretation?


Pi Screencap


The Bottom Line: The teaming of Aronofsky with Sean Gullette is a terrific one, as they almost seem made for each other. The overall feeling of Pi, while not enjoyable to sit through is certainly very memorable. The ideas are interesting, but it’s the wonderful acting, immersive mood and frenetic pacing which really sell the film. I must admit though, the first time I saw Pi (years ago, before I created this site) I wasn’t as enamored with it as I am now. It really took a second viewing for me to warm up to – it grows on you.

This post has been filed under 8 Star Movies, Hacker Movies, Cyberpunk movies from 1990 - 1999 by SFAM.


June 20, 2007

iammany said:

Thanks for this. Pi is one of my favorite movies; I’ve seen it many times and it does really grow on you.

M.Christian said:

Okay, maybe I’m just being Mr.Cranky-pants, but I really didn’t like this movie: predictable, pompous, overwrought … bleh.

SFAM said:

Hi M.Christian, I would absolutely agree with you Pi is for a select few. Even if many find it to be a quality movie, they very well might not enjoy it. I didn’t at first. In watching it more recently though, I found myself appreciating it a lot more than I did like 4 years ago when I first watched it.

June 21, 2007

Texpundit said:

I have one quibble:

Max didn’t *create* an organic supercomputer. From what I gleaned, when Max was running his stock market program, the computer found the 216 digit number (the true name of God) and through finding that number, became at least partially self-aware (and partially organic). The name of God gave the computer life (to a certain extent).

Or I could totally be full of crap. ;)

SFAM said:

Hi Textpundit, I never got that the supercomputer was alive. I call it “organic” (meaning put together over time as needs arise, or opposed to pre-made, for instance) because it clearly takes up his entire apartment, and is a hodgepodge of various parts and devices. And yeah, I do believe the 216 digit number was initially the result of an error in one of his tests.

Texpundit said:

Okay, I get what you mean when you say “organic”… but I mean actually a small bit “organic”, as in animal. Remember when the computer comes up with the number the first time and then shorts out the processor? When Max goes to change the CPU out, he finds some kind of gooey, organic matter…almost like scrambled brain matter or something similar.

That’s where I came up with the idea that the computer became self-aware (even if only for a split second) when it found the number.

Like I said, I could be totally wrong, though. ;)

SFAM said:

Ya know, that’s an excellent point. I totally didn’t make that connection, but now that you mention it, the gooey stuff could be implying that. I may be finding myself watching this movie again. Imagine if it was the computer, and not Max who was the “vessel” so to speak!

Damn, usually I’m quicker on the uptake for these types of things. :(

EDIT: See my modified entry above.

Texpundit said:

Cool on the edit. :)

Also, I usually don’t think this deeply about movies (unless it’s something like Pi), so don’t feel bad about the missed connection. *heh* This was just one of those movies that fascinated me from the get-go.

PS: Since you’re local, you should really come out to one of the monthly Blogger Happy Hours. If you can get past the yuppie types, there are some really cool people there.

SFAM said:

Monthly Blogger Happy Hours??? I think I need more info here - you mean the political ones?

Texpundit said:

Nope. Not political. Mostly average Joes and Janes. Some write relationship blogs, some write humor, some (like me) just write whatever comes to mind. It’s a pretty diverse crew, actually.

SFAM said:

Sent you an email about this Texpundit - I had no idea there were so many local blogs!

June 22, 2007

Engberg65 said:

This movie reminds me of “TETSUO:The Iron Man” but with out the flash and metal this almost like that movie if you think about it! Black & Waite, very fast pates and the next time you watch this kill himself don’t!! JEEZ!!!!!!!

June 23, 2007

Phate said:

I’ve been working on PI research reviews for quite some time, and had a cineforum in April at the University of Verona. There are many things I’d like to point out about this movie and your review, most of which are actually here:

It’s in Italian though, and I think it could be quite an obstacle for you. If I find the time I’ll work on an English translation, I merely thought it could be of some interest to you.

SFAM said:

Hi Phate, unfortunately your link seems bad. Place a correction here and I’ll update your post above. But yeah, Italian is a bit of a barrier for me, but there are enough Europeans here that would be interested in seeing it if the link were fixed. And I’d be interested if you had an English translation of this.

Phate said:

Oopps, sotty, the link actually works, but the wordpress comment module dows not interpret () correctly as a link.

Here’s a hardlink:

June 25, 2007

Texpundit said:

As a revisit, I watched Pi again yesterday and noticed a few things I had forgotten.

1) When Euclid takes on the Torah translation problem and “fails” (after getting the Ming Mecha chip), when Max has his (almost) worst episode of the film…when Max comes out of his episode and finds Euclid processing through the data (with odd visuals such as spiral patterns on some screens), there seems to be organic matter on almost *all* of Euclid’s boards and components. Maybe the Ming was powerful enough for Euclid to finally realize it’s potential and become truly self-aware.

2) The idea of self-awareness was brought up by Sol when he and Max discuss the 216 number “bug” the second time. (So it’s not just my own idea, but integral to the plot.)

3) When Max examines the organic matter under a microscope, it shows up as organic cell structures, most resembling the Golden Spiral. (Note that it also resembles brain and/or muscle tissue…I’m not sure which off the top of my head.)

4) I think your assessment that Euclid is the “pure vessel” that was given the True Name of God is correct, since neither Max nor the Hassids are pure themselves. The Hassids realize they aren’t pure when Max finally convinces them (which is, I guess, why they let him go).


4b) I also think that Max finally realizes this when he has his last episode. He finally realizes the number/Name is killing him and is thus not meant for him (even after his “I see everything” episode). This is why he eventually drills out the “mathematical genius” part of his brain at the end.

Lastly, totally off topic, but did you notice Devi’s boyfriend. He’s none other than Ajay Naidu: the postman in Requiem for a Dream and “Samir” in Office Space. (He was also “Dr. Chakraborty” in K-PAX.)

Texpundit said:

BTW, if you want to see something rather cheezy and funny (in a goofy-geeky way), check out a parody short called “American Pi.”

Part 1 -
Part 2 -

November 17, 2007

Jackie said:

TREPANATION!!!!! That’s like, the term for when the guy drills a hole in his head. That’s really all I have to say about this film. LoL

December 1, 2007

3.14159265358979323846… said:

Well. I remember seeing Pi way back when it first came out and being mildly impressed. Certainly Aaronofsky did well on a very limited budget.

A more recent viewing, though, left me feeling that it was all a bit silly and simplistic. It all feels like a student film,which is what the budget allowed for and is so perhaps excusable, but I had problems with the fundamental parts of the story. Really, the characterisation in the film is pretty awful and the story comes off as a silly puzzle dreamt up by someone desperate to come up with a script idea. I found plot points jarring and forced on my second viewing.

Having become a photographer in the time intervening between viewings I now find the grainy black and white imagery rather ugly. My greater understanding of light and imagery leaves me finding this a bit unappealing. Obviously it covers up the lack of a budget for decent lighting and locations and in that sense is a valid aesthetic choice.

The one thing that remained impressive for me was the soundtrack by Clint Mansell (ex PWEI). Definitely the best thing about the film.

March 12, 2008

bubbles462 said:

This is soooo cool. Ive never heard of this movie till our pi projects in class. Awesome website!

March 28, 2008

Dandy Dan said:

I love PI. First time I saw it I wasn’t convinced… I liked it but it wasn’t an immeadiate classic. I’ve seen it 4 times now and cannot understand why I didn’t love it straight away.

For me it deserves a 10… one of the greatest sci-fi’s of all time.

May 12, 2008

Phate said:

Google translate improved quite a lot recently, you can get a fairly decent translation of my review here.

(until I do a full translation myself)

Hope you like it. ^_^

July 17, 2008

Willi said:

For me a 10. number theory, cult religon worship, man drilling a hole in his head, massive panic attacks, lots of prescribed drugs, wierdo international conglomerates forcing chips on him, computers becoming sentient and blowing up… all to the soundtrack of his hot next door neighbour having loud and what sounds like very enjoyable sex.

October 14, 2008

Carlo said:

awesome movie. had me looking for patterns in the Torah on google lol. man those were some retro Computers though!

March 9, 2009

baracoder said:

You see a lot of ants in this film. There is also a scene where you hear a lot of noise and the see the ant on the paper near the scrolling text and the sound disappears. They are not just bugs, that are all ants.

What do they stand for? Any ideas?

March 19, 2009

Bax said:

I thought the organic matter was just one of the “miracles” the computer could perform after approaching the number, being the creation of life, then right before it broke down it achieved consciousness. As for max, I’d say the number was kind of coming to him, but at the cost of enduring some serious Cluster headaches, then after seeing the death of his former teacher, he decides to literally drill the number out of his head, either to save his life or just relieve the pain.

August 5, 2009

SSJKamui said:

This movie was really amazing and exciting. In some scenes, there isn’t much visible, but this isn’t bad.

September 26, 2009

cronodragon said:

Hello! This is a great site! I’m checking out all the movies to look for those I haven’t watched yet.

While looking at the tile of this movie, it reminded me another movie called “Cube” (1997) ( Probably I made the link with the savant in this movie. Cube is open for interpretation, but might have some details related to cyberpunk genre. IMO, this movie is about a huge machine, an automated robotic building (the cyber side), created to explore the human mind and social interactions, by pushing specimens into critical situations; they will do the best they can to survive and escape the machine (the punk side, right?). In summary, the movie is about machines versus minds versus minds. You won’t see cyborgs, but the robotic maze is just mind-blowing.

You should also review cyberpunk tv shows, like Max Headroom.

Regards from Costa Rica!

SSJKamui said:

I agree, the combination of Cyberpunk and Math is present in both films, Pi and Cube. (Both films are indeed very cool.)

In the reviewer forum of this site, I posted a review of Cube.

November 1, 2009

m4teus said:

Good point you guys got there.

I agree with some parts. My point of view:

If the “number of God” is present in all the material structure, and if this number have the propriety to bring life (like with Golems in Judaic mysticism), then if this number is “printed” in an organism (like a computer program working based on a God’s number programation pattern), just like when Euclid’s schematics where set to work with the Pi number, it would cling to operate like an organic creature, and gain life by “God’s” power.

December 26, 2009

guest said:

Great movie, but I feel that one important theme is missing in the review. This is the theme of chaos vs pure randomness. The difference is that while the behavior of a chaotic system looks very similar to a random one, chaos has typically a very simple deterministic function behind it. One standard example is a pseudo-random number generator. As soon as you guess the number used in the generator you can write down the complete sequence of seemingly randomly generated numbers. The concept is taken to a philosophical level when Max is trying to decypher the randomness in everything that surrounds him. I am not a movie critic (and english is not my native language anyway) but I feel like this connection between some basic math concepts of randomness, its application to real life (stock market, religion) and the effect it has on the main character (of driving him crazy) should be expressed more explicitly.

March 30, 2011

Sid said:


Sid said:

Great movie! Thoroughly enjoyed it. B&W is the way to learn. I appreciate the fact that you’ve acknowledged the fact that the sound played an important part.
But this movie isnt really a cyberpunk. Its a psychological thriller.

Sidharth said:

Great movie! Thoroughly enjoyed it. B&W is the way to learn. I appreciate the fact that you’ve acknowledged the fact that the sound played an important part.
But this movie isnt really a cyberpunk. Its a psychological thriller.

December 27, 2011

cybermodo said:

Computer in this movie was absolute retro delight, like it was made, say, at the end of 70’s, with electronic parts completely opened and typing on bare keyboard with text screen only. The movie truly gets us back in time when there was really a romantic view on computer technology and electronics.

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