When thinking of maths in the movies your mind will probably automatically jump to things like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ which tells the story of Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash or ‘Breaking the Code’ which focuses on Alan Turing, but maths is absolutely everywhere in movies across all genres. Maths plays a very important and vital role in story telling, it validates.
In science fiction maths is used effectively to solidify the science and outlandish theories, for example in the film ‘Equilibrium’ where futuristic enforcers known as “Clerics” have mastered a martial art called the gun kata which through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, determines the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically predictable element. The gun kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents while keeping the defender clear of the statistically traditional trajectories of return fire. In a scene explaining this angles and equations overlay the action to lay credence to the theory and help sell the scientific nonsense to us. In ‘Primer’ several scenes involve maths to sell the idea that four men who invent error-checking machines have solved the problem of time travel using a storage container… Yep that’s really the plot of this movie. Aside from science fiction ‘21’ is a great movie about mathematicians using a simple card counting system to win millions at the blackjack tables of Las Vegas. Maths is a great solidifier for us as it is absolute and is considered the key to the universe.
Another thing maths is used for is movies is to convey mystery or higher intelligence, many movies involve nearly near impossible equations, the search for a specific mathematical problem or patterns of numbers that correlate with something in nature or a shadowy organisation. A few examples of this are ‘The Number 23’ where the protagonist comes up with thousands of ways to calculate the number 23 and believes it has a sinister nature, or ‘Knowing’ where a M.I.T. professor finds a list of numbers in a time capsule which seemingly prophesise dates and times of disastrous events. In the movie ‘2010’ the black monolith of alien origin which seems to appear at intervals to advance mankind’s development, has the dimensions 1:4:9 which are the first three square numbers. The Fibonacci number sequence is prominent in ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and is used to decode the mystery of the shady Knights Templar and their search for the Holy Grail.
As well as being a great narrative device maths has another key role in character development. It is used as shorthand for intelligence. In many movies a certain character will explain a mathematical principle that applies to the story or quote statistics to easily convey their superior intellect. In ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ the alien Klaatu solves a mathematical equation that a professor has been trying desperately to solve in order to be taken seriously and display his race’s higher intelligence. In the movie ‘Road Trip’ the gang have to cross a stream in their car, after much yelling and silly suggestions the character Rubin calmly asserts they could jump the gap and runs through the trajectory of the ramp, the weight of the car and its contents as well as the speed the vehicle would have to travel in order to successfully make the jump. Matt Damon’s character in the film ‘Good Will Hunting’ is introduced as the poor janitor at M.I.T. who has no direction in life. Later he is shown to have a gift for mathematics when he solves a problem on a board that nobody else has been able to solve. So a quick demonstration of maths by a character can instantly make them out to be of genius level intellect. Robots and computer A.I. systems in movies are usually given dialogue stating percentages or statistics to convey how easily they can make large calculations.
The other shorthand maths gives us is the placid quiet pacifist. Characters in teen movies introduced as maths whizzes are usually socially awkward and solitary. Mathematicians in movies are often seen obsessing over blackboards covered with equations and puzzles they try desperately to solve. As we know from ‘Straw Dogs’ though, you should never get on the wrong side of a mathematician. Some stories have characters driven mad by numbers and unsolvable equations, usually turning them into homicidal maniacs. Take Hal from ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or the character of Max Cohen in ‘π’. Just remember not to worry, the primes are not against you and it’s just a movie.
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