PI. Darren Aronofsky’s Stunning Debut Explained

Darren Aronofsky directed Pi in 1997 when he was twenty-eight years old and, like nearly every novice, he faced a significant issue – a lack of funds.

Filip Jalowski

3 July 2024

PI. Darren Aronofsky's Stunning Debut Explained

A large part of the budget for Pi was raised through one-hundred-dollar loans collected from family, friends, and friends of friends. Aronofsky reportedly promised to repay one hundred fifty dollars when the film broke even and turned a profit. Eventually, the project managed to gather a relatively small sum (by film industry standards) of sixty thousand dollars.

Pi Sean Gillette

It quickly became apparent that the money invested in the story about a mathematician teetering on the edge of madness was not wasted. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where Aronofsky received the award for Best Director. Over time, Pi accumulated more accolades from audiences and festival critics. Eventually, a distributor emerged, offering one million dollars for the rights to distribute the novice’s film. Ultimately, Pi grossed $3.22 million, which, given that one of the main characters in Aronofsky’s film is numbers, means that this result represented almost a fifty-fourfold return on the capital invested in the production. While the Fibonacci sequence is not evident in this equation, it still looks quite attractive to me.

Pi Sean Gillette

The success of Pi solidified Aronofsky’s conviction that the path he wanted to pursue should be tied to directing. The money earned from his first film made it easier to raise funds for his next project – Requiem for a Dream – and diverted him from other activities he had potentially planned for his future. One of these was writing scripts for graphic novels. Aronofsky’s indecision is evidenced by the fact that during the making of Pi, he simultaneously collaborated with artist Edward R. Flynn, who, in a record short time (less than a month), created the artwork for the comic book version of the story about the mathematician. Pi – The Book of Ants ultimately served as an original addition/pressbook for the festival premiere at Sundance. As we all know, Aronofsky ultimately stayed with filmmaking. But what exactly is his Pi?

Pi inspirations

After watching Aronofsky’s debut film, many cinephiles and critics compared it to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Aronofsky jokes in many interviews that the only similarity between the two films is that they were both made in black and white. After some reflection, it’s hard not to agree with this joke.

Pi Mark Margolis

The comparison of Aronofsky’s and Lynch’s debuts is very tempting, almost automatic. Both had trouble raising funds, both went against the grain of the cinema that filled multiplexes and brought in huge profits at the time. In both films, we observe the story of a single, eccentric person disconnected from life. However, the similarity between Pi and Eraserhead is illusory. Lynch creates a surreal film, conveying a complex visual metaphor with a not entirely clear, highly personal, and narratively sparse story. Pi, despite flirting with surrealism on a formal level, is primarily a fairly clear psychological thriller (although a more appropriate term might be “philosophical thriller”). Completely different approaches, completely different films.

Pi Sean Gillette

This, of course, does not mean that Aronofsky was not inspired by the works of other filmmakers. Two particularly interesting influences are Shinya Tsukamoto and Stanley Kubrick. Tsukamoto gained fame outside Japan mainly for his film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). This visually aggressive story about a man turning into a machine opened the West’s eyes to cyberpunk in Asian cinema. Aronofsky himself admits that Tsukamoto’s work left a significant mark on him and motivated him to start experimenting with cyberpunk in American cinema. In a sense, Pi is a cyberpunk film. The strange connection between the main character and his supercomputer – Euclid – fits perfectly into the genre’s theme. Then there is Kubrick with his psychological analyses of madness. Before making Pi, Aronofsky obsessively watched A Clockwork Orange, and the temporary emancipations of Euclid bring to mind HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Kubrick, Aronofsky uses a convention bordering on science fiction to delve into his protagonist’s mind. Nevertheless, regardless of how many supercomputers appear on set, the main question will always concern humanity and what is related to it.

Pi Sean Gillette

In Search of Lost Meaning

Pi can be seen as another version of the Frankenstein myth. In Aronofsky’s film, however, the monster gets a name – it’s called Euclid and is a supercomputer capable of performing millions of calculations per second. The patched-up human body parts are replaced by electronic components. As with Victor Frankenstein, the main character of Pi has the most trouble finding the most important element – the brain/processor. In both cases, the monster ultimately acquires this element, but its properties are dangerous for both the creator and bystanders. Frankenstein’s creature gets a brain prone to violence (probably from a criminal’s body). The processor in Pi is also connected to the criminal world, which expects the mathematician to solve the mystery of repeating patterns and apply it to stock market predictions. In the foreground of both stories, we see the frenzy of a genius who challenges divine order and gradually loses himself in his bold ideas. Ultimately, both Frankenstein and Pi pose very similar questions. They concern the search for the meaning of human life, the limits of knowledge, and, indirectly, the existence of God.

Pi Sean Gillette

The Orthodox Jews do not appear in Aronofsky’s film by accident. The scene where the main character talks to an old rabbi about losing the name of God is very important. It contrasts a mathematician who, in one of the film’s early scenes, tells a newly met Hasid that he’s not interested in religion with someone for whom religion is the essence of life. For the rabbi, the mysterious 216 digits, which recur throughout the film, are supposed to be the encoded name of the Creator, the lost name. For the mathematician, the 216 digits and the relationships between them are a formula that is the key to the order of the universe. A master key that allows one to describe and predict everything – from weather anomalies to stock market quotes.

Pi Stephen Pearlman

The protagonist’s mentor points out that the obsessive search for the formula goes beyond the scope of mathematics understood as a scientific discipline. This is indeed the case, as we see in the scene just mentioned. When the protagonist has the sought-after sequence of numbers in his head, and the rabbi tries to extract information about it, a quarrel ensues. The cleric accuses the scientist of not being able to understand what he has found, and the scientist retorts the same – the lack of understanding. In a fit of emotion, the mathematician utters very important words, admitting that the numbers were not deduced based on complex mathematical operations but were revealed. Thus, number theory ceases to be science – it becomes religion, where understanding depends not so much on the work of the brain as on divine illumination.

Pi Sean Gillette

How does this relate to the earlier parts of the film, particularly those involving the supercomputer and the relationship between the mathematician’s mentor and pupil (the main character)? Aronofsky provides very clear answers. One of the key moments in the film is a conversation in which the mentor tells the pupil the story of Archimedes’ eureka. After finishing the tale about the tub of water and its buoyancy, the mentor asks the main character what the most important point of the anecdote is. The mathematician responds that it is the belief that a breakthrough will come. The mentor rebukes him, claiming that the most important point is Archimedes’ wife, who makes him take a break from work and relax in the tub. The second important thread concerns the supercomputer’s momentary “revelations.” The machine can produce meaningful pieces of code only when it is on the verge of agony, gasping its last breaths. During normal operation, it cannot find the appropriate configurations of numbers and the formulas that organize them.

Pi Sean Gillette

Remember Frankenstein’s monster? Despite the creator’s genius, the act of creation only resulted in something resembling a human. In reality, it was closer to a golemic existence. Human creation turned out to be crippled and distorted. However, one cannot overlook the fact that the Monster, in these brief flashes, exhibited typically human traits, thereby making it clear that Frankenstein had come somewhat closer to solving the divine riddle of life. The same applies to Euclid. It is a golem doomed to failure. Nevertheless, in short flashes, in moments when it escapes human control and jurisdiction, it emancipates itself and comes close to the divine riddle of the formula. The sequences of numbers it produces are still only shadows of the solution, just like the flashes of humanity in the Monster.

Finally, there is the matter of the mentor and his story about Archimedes. The philosopher finds the solution to his puzzle not when he spends thousands of hours hunched over complex equations but when he distances himself from the problem, shuts off, and forgets. The water and the tub are merely metaphors in this story. Archimedes does not arrive at the solution through science based on rational premises; the success of his discovery is also not due to an experiment (to call the tub incident an experiment, Archimedes would have had to be aware of conducting it). The answer that appears in Archimedes’ mind simply comes to him – it is a classic example of illumination.

Pi Sean Gillette

However, not everyone can attain enlightenment. In a conversation with the main character, the old rabbi claims that it is granted only to those with pure intentions. To illustrate his point, he tells a story from the times when God’s name was kept in the holy chamber of the Jerusalem temple. Once a year, during the Yom Kippur festival, its high priest would enter the holiest room. If his intentions were pure, he would emerge, and the Jews would rejoice that the Lord was ever closer. If not, he would die, struck down by his proximity to divinity. He died just as the mentor, who at the end of Aronofsky’s story returned to his research on the mystery of 216 numbers. During the film, we learn that the main character’s mentor had already once come close to death during his research. The first approach to divinity had ended with a “mere” serious blockage. The second approach proved fatal.

Pi Sean Gillette

Thus, Aronofsky’s Pi is a film about the failure of rational mind in confronting fundamental questions. The protagonist painfully realizes that the boundary of scientific knowledge is far from solving the puzzle that haunts him. Obsessively poring over Fibonacci sequences or the Riemann hypothesis proves futile. In Aronofsky’s film, the theory of numbers leads to solving the mystery only when it turns into faith, which in language is the exact opposite of science based on rational premises. Furthermore, the conclusion of Pi is even more emphatic. When the main character injures himself to damage his brain and rid himself of accumulated information and genius abilities, he admits that he is not ready to bear the burden of absolute knowledge. The chamber containing God’s name should not be opened, regardless of the circumstances or what it actually holds.