"I'm so close," implores Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), the paranoid, insular protagonist of Darren Aronofsky's debut feature Pi. He was a math prodigy with a doctorate in number theory before he was old enough to drink. Now he lives in a cavelike Chinatown apartment, surrounded by the looming towers of his homebrew supercomputer Proteus, struggling to apply his theories to the stock market and nursing brutal cluster headaches that incapacitate him for days at a time. But Pi is not about number theory or Wall Street sorcery; it's about the torment of believing you have the keys to creation in your head, and not being able to get them out.
Numbers are the only thing that make sense to Max. Graph the numbers of a system, he tells himself, and patterns emerge — patterns that allow predictions to be made, that allow mastery of the world where before only chaos reigned. Other human beings are alien territory. Even the little girl who lives upstairs from Max and plays math games with him just makes him more uneasy. His friendly neighbor Devi (Samia Shoaib) makes him samosas, but Max has no idea how to return such dotage. The only other person with whom he finds anything like solace is his crusty mentor Sol (Mark Margolis), now retired after a crippling stroke put an end to his career of chasing patterns in numbers.
Everything in Max's life feels like a wall closing in. A Hasidic Jew at a lunch counter, Lenny (Ben Shenkman), tries to unsuccessfully interest Max — a fellow Jew, but not religious — in tefillim, but his more intriguing talk of the Torah's numerology only inspires Max to feel panic. Pressure from a cheery finance-firm representative (Pamela Hart) to lend his skills to their market-picking strategies makes him triple-bolt his door. Then one day Proteus has a meltdown — a literal bug is found nesting in its climate-controlled CPU chassis — and barfs a printout of a nonsensical 216-digit number that Max spitefully balls up and tosses into the trash.
Except that maybe that number wasn't nonsense. Before dying, Proteus also dumped a number of stock predictions that turn out to be spot-on. That 216-digit number might have been something Sol also blundered across in his own work, something intimidating enough to scare him away from looking closer. Something enticing to the likes of the Wall Street quants who would just as soon tempt Max with cutting-edge computing hardware as they would beat the secrets out of him. Enticing to the cadre of Hasids who believe the number in Max's head is the true name of God, and that only they, and not he, are worthy of it. Enticing to Max himself, who realizes to his horror he has a cosmic secret staring him in the face and can't do anything with it.
Where would science fiction be without its mad scientists? From Frankenstein on forward, SF's cautionary legacy is expressed chiefly through that archetype, especially in the movies: Metropolis's Rotwang, Dr. Cyclops, Dr. Brace of Brainstorm, the genetic engineers of Vincenzo Natali's Splice. Each of them is guided by an overriding obsession to realize the impossible. Pi featured only the first of the obsessives Aronofsky habitually makes into his protagonists: the single-minded junkies of Requiem For A Dream, the neurotic monomania of the dancer in Black Swan, the consuming obsessions of the triple protagonist (conquistador, husband, spacefarer) in The Fountain. With Pi, the mad-scientist merges with another archetype: the Underground Man, the loner and outsider who intentionally alienates himself from the corruption and confusion of the quotidian world to reach some kind of inner truth or personal purity.
Where Pi works, and where some of Aronofsky's other projects don't, is I think a matter of scope and intentions. It's not clear anyone has the answer to anything in Pi, that both Max and everyone after him may well be whistling in the dark, and that their undoing is not because of the quest for knowledge but the inability to do so in a way that gracefully encompasses failure — the difference between being curious and, again, obsessive. With Pi, there's enough ambiguity for it to be fascinating. Black Swan's protagonist is so clearly a neurotic bomb waiting to go off that there's no suspense about what happens, it's just a question of when. (See also: Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, the most suspense-less horror film ever made.) The Fountain's death-defying, immortality-obsessed protagonists end up shutting out everything else interesting about the story, leaving room for nothing but visual formalism and sterile symbolism.
Aronofsky's always been good at making the most with the least in his productions. He made Pi by selling $100 stakes in the film to raise $60,000, with sets hot-glued together from junkyard leavenings. But the grainy black-and-white photography and improvised production design, products of its minimal budget, all work in the movie's grubby, paranoid favor. (It's also dated very little: the quants who want to headhunt Max could be out of today's cryptocurrency crowd.) It helps that this story doesn't need a lot of money to be told well, one that is chiefly about the weather inside the head of its protagonist. Stormy weather.