An analysis of Pi the movie, its debt to literary sci-fi and the history of ideas.

So what is Pi about? That's like asking "what is the matrix?", only you don't have to don tight black vinyl, funky shades and constantly make pop culture references as you mince around the screen spouting gauche pseudointellectual teenager 'philosophy' crap about "ooo, what if all this is a dream?"

Pi is a search for the meaning of everything, the result of a set of logical syllogisms that proves that an ultimate answer does exist. The search could so easily be humorous, with Douglas Adams' Life, The Universe And Everything tetralogy as a precedent. Instead, the story revolves around its obsessive knight-errant, a mathematician who is plagued by headaches and hallucinations and whose answer is chased by Hasidic Jewish scholars and a stock market group.

In Pi, you are expected to grasp the fundamentals of the Fibonacci sequence, the da Vinci Codex, and of course the nature of the Pi value itself, to understand large chunks of the movie. Strangely, all of this is rather sexy. Other movies have gaps for lust and sex, squeezed in after gunfight #12 and before car chase #3, but we are desensitized to physical disinhibition now and it is intellectual stimulation that is the most potent aphrodisiac. This is a strange movie by definition - the way to salvation lies not through guns, fisticuffs, or even wit, but by something as abstract as human rationality, presented through a highly emotional lens. Of course, here the movie could also veer off the cliff of self-absorbed arrogance, totally absorbed in an impenetrable "oh, I'm so arty" cocoon, but this path is also avoided. Rationality here is an attainable goal, not something that you have to wear black to understand. And over it all, it is an incredibly lusty rationality, driven by passion despite being objective.

Pi is an incredibly humanist movie, Buddhist even ("Did you know that 'Uma' means middle path?"). As a complete departure from this genre it contrasts greatly with most science fiction movies that have come out in the last few decades. Typically, they are shallow exercises in perfecting the action movie genre (Aliens), some of which are at least vaguely original because they need a fairly novel idea to work. Compare this genre to other 'science fiction' movies that are mere takes on other genres. Alien Nation is an intergalactic Lethal Weapon (interracial cops and by far the worst violation of film plagiary in this list); Jupiter 3 is a generic axe-murderer story set in outer space; that really bad moon-mining one with Sean Connery that's essentially a detective story. It's like reading modernist science fiction all over again. Jules Verne stuck to the essentials of technological advancement, but other writers such as HG Wells thought they'd go out on a limb and write future manifestos like The Shape of Things To Come, which today reads like it was written by an early twentieth century conservative British male. Not surprisingly, it was. The fact is that so often science fiction is merely a mirror for our own hopes and fears, written like something else because it's fun and/or because it's easier to deal with that way.

Literary scifi had a kinship with the same subgenre that Pi belongs to. I say 'had' because Philip K. Dick is now dead. After modernist-rationalist scifi which has largely dominated writing, reading ("The monolith! The monolith!") and thinking about scifi, or lack thereof, Dick appeared to be only an aberration before the advent of cyberpunk literature. Cyberpunk is best described (but not explained) by the eighties. It was mildly petulant and novelty formed a significant part of the core, and sometimes authors like Bruce Sterling and William Gibson got away with it by putting in some incredible piece of imagery, some ineffable philosophy of living. More often than not, relying only on novelty saw the boring self-destruction of stories, especially with the subsubgenre of steampunk and its overuse of consciously quirky alternate timelines. There is a two way flow between Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (interestingly, Ridley Scott contacted the director soon after the movie came out with a view for future work) with its fuzzy message of humanity über alles in the midst of an exotically Kafkaesque city, and cyberpunk. Cyberpunk's influence on The Matrix is obvious.

Philip K. Dick's writing, as one critic commented, took rocket ships and mutants and telepaths and made them the stuff of great writing. These stock stereotypes of pulp scifi were simultaneously integral parts of his stories and pieces of a lens through which we were expected to find something greater, the gestalt. The whole, in Pi, is clearly more than the sum of its parts. Pi salvages from the fused wreckage of so many clichés (tortured genius, unrequited interracial love, evil Jews and black people) a transcendental purity, partly by remaining comfortable with its clichés. Those one-liners may sound trite, but Pi puts them each in their place. Max Cohen is irrational in his rejections of his neighbour, the stock market group wants to avoid the impending doom of stock market crash, and the Jewish scholars want to learn God's name to bring mankind closer to paradise. They are all driven by believable motivations and obsessions which are mixed with typically irrational human flaws.

This is very similar to the way that some TV programs create meaning out of their otherwise kitsch and schlocky scifi or horror plots, the X-Files through graceful script workings and Buffy the Vampire Slayer by simplicity and force of archetype. The closest I have seen a full length movie come close to integrating so well plot and philosophy, and doing so in such a complete and erudite fashion, is the manga Akira, with quasi-Buddhist thoughts and high tech action-destruction.

One reason that these works are so fluent is because while science fiction is necessarily a result of our times, it is also a way to escape everything that holds us down. Our jobs, the ozone layer, politics - will these even exist two hundred years from now? The temptation to utopianise or dystopianise is great, hence rationalist scifi and the cyberpunks, but scifi can also strip all of this away and acts as a perfect vehicle for what the author or director wants to say.
JG Ballard says that science fiction is what would result if we destroyed all of literature and tried to look at ourselves through writing. It is a statement that is obliquely supported by minimalist 'finish fetish' artist McCracken's assertion that some Egyptian statues, made of black stone and smoothed into an eerie shine, indicate that the ancient Egyptians had a form of understanding and visual expression of science fiction. It's like claiming that Saint Thomas Aquinas was a postmodern philosopher, but you get the drift. Pi is adamantly scifi, but it is also a way to look at our own world, to talk about ourselves while telling a story. George Lucas could never hope to accomplish with his research into human perceptions of good and evil what Aronofsky does with Pi, with its deceptively simple plot. In this way, it is a pure scifi, at once thoroughly involved in humanity but also observing it curiously and affectionately from a distance.

huan-tzin goh
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