Easy as Pi

I'm stuck in the waiting room of a car-repair shop. My only companions are a humming cola vending machine, a gurgling coffee maker, and a blue iMac that--every few minutes, in a soft, raspy female voice--says "Please...touch me...now." Though the computer probably is just selling maintenance agreements or car accessories, its forceful voice and chosen request sound like a .wav file from a cyber porn site. I'd look for a volume switch, but I'm afraid to touch her (I mean it), now or anytime.

Man has a weird relationship with computers (I'm talking about more than just porn now). We rely so much on these machines to control many aspects of our lives. The Y2K bug paranoia proved that. There has to be a point when they become too great a force, too important a tool. Thankfully most of us haven't reached that point yet.

Max Cohen has. In Darren Aronofsky's 1998 independent film hit, Pi, Max (played by Sean Gullette) understands his computer Euclid more than he does people. His mainframe is also his main flame. His only intentional human contact is his mentor Sol (Mark Margolis), who, like Max, searches for the meaning of Pi. While geometry students just use Pi as the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, Max is looking for a pattern in the infinite string of digits beyond the 3.14 we learned in school. So far no patterns have emerged though mathematicians have calculated thousands of digits, but they believe it's out there because patterns exist in all things from human fingerprints and DNA to seashells and the Milky Way.

Max also believes there's one in the stock market that will predict when it crashes and when it drastically increases. This draws attention from a Wall Street firm represented by Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), who offers money and a super-classified computer chip for his formula. His research also influences a sect of Kabbalists who are translating the Torah from Hebrew letters into numbers in hopes of finding a 216-digit pattern that's the true name of God and the key to heaven and creation itself. Both groups think he's an unworthy medium for this potentially powerful sequence because he doesn't care about money or religion, just his mathematical pursuit.

So there's Pi, the Torah, and the stock market, which are connected by a math whiz who searches for the meaning and patterns in all three. It may sound like a math lesson railroaded by leaps of faith and stretches of the imagination, but Pi is actually a thriller. It's not a question of whether he will discover the patterns, but whether he can find them before everything destructs. Shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white, the film's pace increases as Max goes deeper into his mind and the computer. The techno music pumps louder and faster. Everyone's afraid that the chance to learn the pattern is slipping away as Max descends further into his mind. They become desperate, violent.

Pi is a dangerous thing. Immersing yourself in it affects the brain's functions. Sol believes it caused his stroke. And, as Max pushes himself, he becomes like a computer, processing information faster than any human should. His migraine headaches (caused by staring at the sun until he temporarily lost his sight) hit more frequently and become more violent. He trembles, feels the cutting pains, hears metallic drilling sounds within, sees lights flashing, and has strange visions about a living brain. Then he blacks out. When he wakes up, blood from his nose covers his face and hands. Nothing can stop or ease the headaches.

Meanwhile the constant loop of processing patterns causes Euclid to crash, but only after it spits out a 200-digit string. Max thinks it may be the string of digits the Kabbalists are looking for. Sol believes the data, which he also found during his research, proves that, for one moment, the computer was conscious of itself and its silicon nature. It was thinking; it was alive. Besides watching Max's brain overload, the scariest thing about Pi is that pursuit of the patterns that control nature are powerful enough to make a man mechanical and a computer cognizant. Perhaps crashing isn't the most frightening thing these machines can do. One day they may speak of their own accord.

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Shannon Sutlief