A Few Theories to Explain the Movie PI

Ok, so the movie isn’t called PI, but rather π, but since most people don’t type in alt codes, I’m guessing PI will be the search that people will use. Is that internet denizen? Did you find this by typing π or PI? See, I thought so.

Alright, so, the other day, over at my movie recommendation page (which, you can find here), Ryissa was kind enough to recommend that we all discuss the crazy head trip of a movie PI. And PI was so familiar to me, and had been on my radar for so long that I had just assumed that I had already seen it, but had forgotten to do a review of it. So I flip it open, and start watching just to refresh myself on the details. But alas! 5 minutes in, I was still completely lost. I hadn’t seen it after all. So I popped some popcorn (this is just a metaphor, I definitely don’t eat popcorn while watching a mind job like PI. But I digress.) and settled in.

The movie is about a genius mathematician who is on the search of some key or some hidden code in the number PI. But ten years later, he had still not discovered it. He coincidentally bumps into a Jewish Kabbalist, and spirals out of control as he continues his search for God and the face of the universe. I have a great trailer here for you… you should try it.

So yeah, it’s a little bit, um dark. And yeah… could be a little bit too intense for the more delicate among us. But yeah, totally a great film. I believe it won Best Director at Sundance and it was also nominated for the Grand Jury prize in 1998? No, I read that in an interview recently. Somewhere. Anyway. It is not your average everyday mind job sort of a movie, its a full bore, fullon, let’s drill a hole in our head sort of a movie.

But, like all other THiNC. movie reviews – if you haven’t seen the movie, I’d move along if I were you. You’ve been warned. From here on out, here be dragons.

PI Overview and Walkthrough

As PI (anyone know why I am capitalizing both letters in PI? This confuses even me. Hrm.) kicks off we quickly learn that Maximillian Cohen is a reclusive introvert, with some serious OCD tendencies. In a word, the guy isn’t even slightly well. (Wait, that wasn’t a word. This write up isn’t starting off well… like at all.) Max avoids the neighbors, dodges the kids in the apartment buildings, he’s fairly mental to start with. Oh, and on top of that? He has migraines (heard the term Thunder Clap Migraines the other day, and am now happy I got to use the term out loud. So fun.) that he fights with jacked up concoctions of his own making. Think serious home brew badness, that usually end with him wrapped around the base of the toilet, unconscious.

When Max meets up with Sol Robeson for a game of Go (GO?) we learn that Sol was his math professor years earlier. 10 to be exact. But since then, our aspiring math genius has basically produced nothing. Instead? He’s unsuccessfully chased meaning in the long chain that is PI. (Pi? Gah. GAH?) Until one day, he runs into Lenny Meyer, Jewish adherent to Kaballah and its mysterious ways.

Quick Sidestep Primer on Kaballah

Kaballah (to put it very very simply) is a discussion of the internal dimensions, or the hidden qualities, of the Torah. Or, the secrets of the Torah. Kaballah teaches that when God came down to Mount Sinai, and imparted His wisdom to Moses, Kaballah began and it was this revelation of truth that has been sought to be fully understood in its hidden meanings. Kaballah is really esotericism meant to help describe the relationship between the eternal and the finite (or God’s creation). It is not a religious experience in and of itself, but seems to be used by numerous different religions and denominations. It is an attempt to answer some of the deeper ontological outstanding questions. And it is through these understandings that its followers will attain spiritual realization. Ok? It’s 100% about uncovering the truth and spiritual realization. That’s the bit you really need to keep in mind.

The Search Begins

So with Max bumping into a Kaballist and having his brain turned inside out with the possibilities of God being in the numbers (did I mention that yet? that a part of the revelation of God in the finite is through numerology. Or the study of numbers.

And while Jewish Kaballa starts Max’s real journey, Max is truly looking an enlightenment of any sort. Max believes that math is the language of nature. That everything around him could be understood by numbers and mathematical formulas. He believes that in any system, if he were to graph the numbers inherent to it, patterns would emerge.

10:18 – Press Return

The algorithm that Max is working on is attempting to predict the direction and the specific future stock prices of all the stocks in the stock market. Each time he takes a sample, and then later looks again, he is hoping that his computer model will tell the future. But his chips keep overheating with the work. There is a bug somewhere. And when he talks to his professor, his professor tells him that sometimes when the computer thrashes in its death throes, it becomes aware, it becomes alive. Which fascinates Max, because the last time his program thrashed and died, it spat out a 216 digit long sequence of numbers. And coincidentally, his Kaballist acquaintance is also looking for a 216 digit long sequence of numbers.

And as things begin to rapidly speed up, Marcy Dawson arrives, yet again, and offers Max a classified computer chip to help with his research. And about that time, things in Max’s brain begin unhinging. Like literally. He even finds a brain (his brain) sitting there on the stairs, that he begins to poke and prod. 1830, press return. And as the data keeps coming back with nothing, and no results, he begins cutting his hair off and finds an incision there, a scar near his ear.  He has another migraine attack and crashes out, only to wake and find that pretty much everyone in the apartment is there with him. Apparently, he was screaming? He’s not doing well.

It turns out, that when he threw away the number previously, Marcy and her team had been tracking him and took the number from the trash. And they are after him to get the entire number from him. Why? Because the number is a door… it is the key to some sort of enlightenment, or the ability to touch the face of God? So when goes back to his professor, he learns that it was the number and his research that gave him a stroke and forced him to stop. Right? Which, it is this conversation that causes him to dive back into his research and ultimately have another stroke. So great job Max. Good on you for killin’ the old guy!

PI and the Coming Messiah

Lenny Meyer saves Max from Marcy and company and brings him to a synagogue? Some hidden location where they are doing Jewish rites. And as they are performing them, Lenny tells Max that once a year, the High Priest was allowed to go into the Holy of Holies. And if the Priest was considered holy, he survived. The Priest had one job, to invoke the name of God, and it was 216 characters long. And with that, the coming of the Messiah was one year closer. If he was not holy? He died, and they dragged him out of the temple with a rope tied to his ankle. And when Rome destroyed the temple in 70AD their knowledge of the name of God was lost. And so, ever since then, they have been looking for the key. Those 216 characters that would equate to God’s name.

They then begin arguing about the fact that the number wasn’t meant for Max, but rather for them. And Max tells them he was the one that discovered it and it was inside him, purifying him. But Lenny thinks that its actually killing him. Eventually Max leaves without giving them the number. He heads home and he feels another headache coming. But instead of taking drugs in search of a solution, he just lets the headaches come. And he begins destroying all of this computer equipment violently. And Max has a voice over during his freak out, stating again (echoed from the beginning) that when he was young, his mother told him not to stare into the sun, so he did. And then he begins drilling into his head.

The Ending

We see Max and the neighbor girl talking. She keeps asking him math questions, and he can’t answer any of them. And he is finally happy because the demon has been exorcised.

PI Movie unpacked

There are probably as many interpretations of the movie PI as there are numbers in PI. It is such a nebulously slippery movie. Elusive like quicksilver. But it probably has something to do with obsession and compulsion. It probably has something to do with good and evil. It might just have something to do with conspiracy theories and dark forces in the world today. And so I have pulled a few random theories together to see if we can better understand this crazy movie. 

Movie PI a Study of Mental Illness

In my own personal life, I have met more than just a couple developers that slide into this space of obsessive compulsive disorder standpoint. And watching them count as they wash their mug exactly 20 times in order to adequately clean it I got just a little bit of a glimpse of what it was that Max might be going through. Or as I watched them check a door lock 10 times in order to validate it is in fact locked. But Max? He is a whole different level of obsessed. Obsessed with this conviction that the numbers hold a hidden truth. Obsessed with finding and unlocking that truth. 

So from this perspective, this entire movie has nothing to do with Jewish Numerology or spiritual truths. These are just general coincidences. Actually, Max is literally the least reliable narrator cinema has ever seen. Could it be this movie was entirely in his head? Could it be the company that gave Max the chip didn’t even exist? And maybe, this struggle about the numbers were simply Max struggling internally. Bottom line, it actually doesn’t matter. What really matters is that Max is struggling with his grip on reality. And his real search? Is all about determining what is the real. Max was pretty much insane the entirety of this whole movie. We can’t really know if any of this was real or not. 

Movie PI a Kabbalah Primer

Or maybe, it is a struggle for Jewish and numerological truth. Could it be that the Jews that Max ran into were the one true thing in this movie? And their search for the name of God was actually the true pursuit here? Those 216 characters and the progression towards the coming Messiah?

It is true that the Jewish religion is utterly on ice since the destruction of the temple. I have been dying to get my hands on a patient Jew who would be open to talking to a Christian about how their religion works since the destruction of the temple. How forgiveness of sins are currently occurring. How they are executing their religion without the single most important feature of it, the temple. Because it is baffling. From a Christian perspective, Christ came, and took away the need for sacrifices in the temple. He was the perfect sacrifice, and the need is now gone. And so when the temple was destroyed it was because there was no need for it anymore. But, obviously, from a Jewish perspective (non-Messianic Jewish perspective anyway) the temple is EVERYTHING. They cannot walk closely with God without forgiveness of sins through the regular sacrifice of animals. Just not a thing. And since the only place that a temple can go is on the temple mount (that is not allowed to be built upon) they are truly out of luck.

So this movie surfaces some interesting theories about God. The desire to progress towards the coming year of the Messiah. And that they could make the coming arrive sooner by working, doing. There was one line in the movie that I found really interesting. That it is through Mitzvah – good works – that is our spiritual food for our hearts and minds. And it is Max who is working himself into insanity by trying and trying to hamster wheel his way to find the face of God.

PI a Conspiracy Theory Kickstarter

Another theory that sort of works in unpacking the craziness of this movie is a view of Marcy and her constant surveillance of Max. Instead of looking at it as a spiritual riddle to be solved, or a psychological puzzle to be solved. What if the key to this movie is that of a Big Brother and Government question?

If we look at the entire timeline, we know that Max has been in pursuit of something important in the mathematical realm for over ten years. He goes into seclusion and disappears from the world. But we also know that Marcy has been attempting to get ahold of Max for a very long time. That she was a fan of his paper and his research.

"I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to finally meet you. I've studied your papers for years."

The government apparently thinks that there is something to his research, and they want it. Which is why they give him the computer chip. Which is why they go through his trash and continue calling and calling and calling. But ultimately, the question here is bout power. And control of numerological truth. This actually is similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the control of religious truth as power.

My Own Theory on the Movie Pi?

I actually think that the truth of this movie is deeper than these three glancing blows at what this movie is all about. But to understand my theory, we sort of need to walk away from the movie all together. And we’ll begin with the word Ennui.

I believe this movie begins and ends in the zeitgeist of our society today – and the massive levels of despair and loss that riddles our culture. But why? We are more technologically advanced than any culture before us. We have levels of comfort that no other society before us have ever had. I mean, this is illustrated by the fact that you are able to walk into your bathroom and run water out of a spigot in your house. Better yet? You can run HOT WATER from your shower head. We have beds, and conditioned air that keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Our kitchens are filled with delicacies that most societies had never heard of let alone had available year round. Like, oh I don’t know, strawberries and watermelons. All genetically modified for size and sweetness and a lack of annoying seeds?

And yet? We are a despairing culture. We are at a loss.

But, there is a thread throughout PI that talks about the desperate search for truth. Or better yet, capital T Truth. Absolute Truth. We are desperate for a relationship with our creator, or some deeper meaning to this crazy thing we call life. Personally? My days on this planet are rapidly accelerating towards my end. When we are young we think we have all the time in the world. But very very quickly we realize this couldn’t be further from the truth. And so we begin scrambling for something deeper. This is indicated by Max’s obsessive compulsive mad dash at the answers. And when he does find the 216 characters. When he memorizes it… the question comes, who is worthy for this truth? Who is good enough to obtain it, to touch the face of God? Is it religions. Is it governments? Is it those of us who have conducted adequate Mitzvahs? Adequate good works? Or is there a deeper more true reality underlying it all?

I personally believe that the movie is about man’s insane pursuit to know the face of god. To control him. To turn him on and off with a switch. To invoke him in the bowels of our computers and to predict the stoke markets and the world around us.

Your Thoughts on PI

So I have more than said my peace on PI. What are your thoughts as to what it is trying to say? Is it just some man going insane? Is there a deeper truth about religion? Is it saying something about governments and governmental power? Or was it all in a dream made up from Max’s mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

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6 Responses

  1. Saman

    I have a theory about the hidden meaning of Pi but before i say my theory i wanna talk about the time i watched this movie for the first time.

    A few years back i went to study Math Major at University , when i was at high school i was so fascinated about the “Truth” of everything , i wanted to figure out the hidden meaning in life so i decided to understand all the topics of Science from the very base , i decided to study Math Major so i get ready for sciences from Physics to Biology.

    First year at Math major we had a course named Philosophy of Mathematics , i thought it would give me the base i’m looking for but it wasn’t enough , so i started researching about the topic and i started buying some books that i thought would answer these questions that i have : “Where do the numbers come from ?”
    “What is a Pattern ?” , “why there is such a thing as pattern in nature ?” and etc.
    So i found out some of the answers to these questions , but they weren’t enough , so i decided to study the Math courses themselves in the hope that they would give me a better perspective , two courses in particular did that for me , “logic and set theory” and “Math analysis”. When i understood the concept of Axioms and logical structures , it gave me a deep insight about Mathematics.

    But in the heart of all these math topics there was a question that i wasn’t able to answer , “What is true nature of a continuous set ? ” were numbers like fractures made up by humans so they can simply solve problems that aren’t solvable without them ? OR does nature actually consist of numbers like Pi , i found out that i can answer many of these questions by solving one central problem in all mathematics : “Continuum hypothesis”

    So i got obsessed with solving it until a friend of mine recommended the movie “Pi” to me.

    In Pi Max is obsessed with predicting the stock market , such questions nowadays get analyzed by Chaos theory , but Max is a Number theorist so he is trying to predict it by finding a constant that all the other numbers can be a Multiple of.

    He eventually finds this constant but it comes at a price.

    let me tell you why. Are you familiar with Godel incompleteness Theorem ?
    One philosophical implication of such theorem is that , we can’t write some simple rules or Axioms and then logically derive the deepest mysteries of our universe.

    logic has its own limitations , and sanity is the ability to think logically , but once you face problems that are outside the limitations of logic you step foot in the realm of insanity.

    When i was trying to solve the “continuum hypothesis” i felt that i’m going insane so i was fortunate enough to figure it out before its too late. So i decided to drop this “finding the ultimate Truth” business and start using my Mathematical knowledge in helping the world in more concrete ways. I changed my major to Applied Physics i learnt every undergraduate topic in Applied physics in the first year so i dropped out of college and i started my own company. I survived.

    But Max was much more obsessed than i am and his belief that everything in nature can be understood through numbers was his eventual doorstep into insanity.

    He was tackling with questions that are outside the realm of logic with logical tools like number theory and that drove him into madness.

    By the way , sorry for my bad English.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey there Saman, your english is fantastic. No worries there at all. Kudos to you. I’ve been meaning to reply to you since you wrote, but my life has been harried and complicated. My apologies.
      Now, let me just say that you are smarter than me by a factor… so you have the floor sir. Say what you will and I won’t disagree. And no, I don’t know Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem. I just read about it on Wikipedia (the library for idiots like me!) But I think I understand the larger problem Godel was trying to prove after reading several different accounts of his theorems.

      “One philosophical implication of such theorem is that , we can’t write some simple rules or Axioms and then logically derive the deepest mysteries of our universe. Logic has its own limitations , and sanity is the ability to think logically , but once you face problems that are outside the limitations of logic you step foot in the realm of insanity.”

      Yeah I get that. That makes sense to me. Truth is deeper than a number or a factorial. Truth is deeper than an algorithm. Though we can learn things about truth through algorithms and theorems.

      So I am taking it from your account that you can relate to poor insane Max? hahah. But instead of augering into the ground, you pulled your parachute ripchord and survived! That is very good news.

      By the way, I would love to hear more about your business and they you chose to survive. What would someone as smart as you choose to do with your time instead of chasing the meaning of life in numbers? And also, if you don’t mind sharing? I’d love to know if you have any sort of belief in a higher power at all. Just curious as you seem like a very intelligent person who is well reasoned and logical. And yet, you see a conflict there with pure analytics.

      Thanks for commenting Saman, I really found it interesting. Pi is an amazing movie, with a very interesting premise.

  2. Saman

    Thanks for the reply , Well after i dropped out of college , with the help of my best friend i wrote an EDA software and an AI algorithm in order for the software to be processed in an optimized manner by the CPU.

    In my country (Iran) , our economy is in critical state because it lacks the basics for a stable industry , so before i started my company , i came up with a business plan to make sure i can solve some of these issues and since i have the necessary knowledge to solve many of the engineering problems that i will face , the only things i needed were the necessary materials and additional personnel and for getting them i needed money and the EDA software was enough to fund my projects.
    Our world is filled with suffering and pain that are caused by different reasons from natural disasters to terrorism and i will do my best to play my part in solving such problems.

    And about your other question , Well i’m not a religious person despite being born in a religious country , but i do believe in a higher power and universal love and that belief has came after reading extensive amount of information from philosophy to researching about different spiritual cultures around the world and hopefully i was able to form a belief system in my mind and draw a line between what i can know and what i can’t. My father is a poet and a philosopher and he has knowledge in native american spirituality and Buddhism and he helped me a lot in this journey.

    I started my journey by seeing from the lens of Mathematics and as i mentioned i got to the point that i couldn’t get more answers from such perspective , so i tried other perspectives.

    Such journeys are purely subjective and since we live in a world that are filed with different ideologies and religions , it makes one’s path to find meaning in life really hard and it results in a nihilistic society , by having a balance between rationality and open mindedness a person can form a better view of the reality around him/her.

  3. Taylor Holmes

    That is so cool Saman,
    You have to read this interview I did with a fellow countryman of yours Murray, you can find it here: https://taylorholmes.com/2018/01/19/interview-with-iranian-thinc-reader-murray/ – he reads the site, and we stumbled into each other in a similar way that you and I just did and it was such a magnificent learning opportunity for me. I’ve never had the privilege to chat with an Iranian before, so I considered it a real learning opportunity. Would love to hear your thoughts on our vaunted president, Donald Trump and his dumping of the treaty. (Probably better not to discuss it. But I’m intrigued all the same.) So thanks for the response!! So cool.


  4. AT

    BTW, 216 = 6*6*6

    Not a coincidence, really serious math people know their perfect cubes.

  5. BMS

    What I need to know is how to give up, to let it go. I recognize my inability to ever comprehend what I am searching for even if I found it, but I continue to cycle back to the issue. Over and over and over again. And my inability to understand, the failure to even begin to see the road to the solution, is driving me insane. Literally. The thought of death as a gateway to the solution is not thrown away as it should be. If nothing else, it would bring freedom from the contemplation.

    When I was consumed with work, and younger, I did not have this compulsion. Now – as if fulfilling a stereotype – it is the only thing I can care about. Everything else simply drops away. My children, my wife, my job. Obsession isn’t a strong enough word.

    This will destroy me, and many more. The fact is that because of our luxurious lives we have more time to simply think and ponder, and these questions with no answers will forever haunt some of us.



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