Alan Turing helped the Allies win World War II, and made enough significant contributions to mathematics, computer science, technology, philosophy and artificial intelligence to have influenced countless subsequent people in each field. Graham Moore’s screenplay for a film based on the life of Turing, called The Imitation Game, topped the annual Black List of unproduced scripts, and The Weinstein Company snapped it up with Leonardo DiCaprio interested in playing Turing. In the end, living internet meme Benedict Cumberbatch was cast and the film, directed by Norweigan Morten Tyldum, won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF this year.
I haven’t seen The Imitation Game, but I do love a compelling mathematician in a movie. Who doesn’t? They don’t even have to actually do much math or computer stuff, because that’s usually boring unless it’s written in marker on a window in their dorm. But mathematicians fighting dinosaurs? Sign me up! Anyway. Here are the five best movie mathematicians, a list BuzzFeed wishes it had thought of. (Has it? I haven’t checked.)
5.) Paul Rivers, “21 Grams” (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003)
Though he may not give the best performance in Iñárritu’s sprawling and non-linear admirable mess of a film (it’s hard to beat Benicio del Toro when he’s at the top of his game), Sean Penn plays Paul Rivers, a guy with a month left to live unless he gets a new heart. Iñárritu’s trademark hyperlink story device in his Death Trilogy is a little too convoluted to be effective, and usually believes it’s more clever than it is (especially in Babel), but it works best in 21 Grams. Rivers isn’t particularly likeable, but his arc is the most powerful (if straightforward) of the film, leading to some remarkable final moments. Not much math, though, to be honest.
4.) Cady Heron, “Mean Girls” (Mark Waters, 2004)
I’m really good at math, it’s my favourite subject in school. You know why? It’s the same in every country. It’s a beautiful universal language. But I can’t join the Mathletes, it’s social suicide! I need to recalibrate my approach here. No, I’m into this boy in my math class. I don’t know how to get his attention, so I’m going to pretend to need his help. He doesn’t even know anything, but at least we’re talking. Now he’s tutoring me! My teacher doesn’t get it, though. “You don’t have to dumb yourself down to get boys to like you,” she says. What do you know, Four-Eyes? This is high school. You just have to solve the puzzle in front of you.
3.) Max Cohen, “Pi” (Darren Aronofsky, 1998)
Is there a narrative conceit as endlessly giving as that of the man or woman with an extreme obsession, going to any length to see it to fruition? Jake Gyllenhaal trying to catch the Zodiac killer, Philip Seymour Hoffman trying to put on the most ambitious stage production ever attempted, Natalie Portman attempting to put on a perfect ballet performance. Or, in the case of Max Cohen, an obsession with numerical patterns and, more specifically, a 216-digit number that might be a symbol of God. Max is a pretty huge math nerd, but he’s also someone worth really rooting for in Aronofsky’s characteristically surreal and suspenseful tale of a man being driven mad by his mathematical obsession. Truly one of the more convincing arguments for why math sucks.
2.) John Givings, Jr., “Revolutionary Road” (Sam Mendes, 2008)
Michael Shannon has only a few short scenes as John Givings, Jr. in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, but leave it to Shannon to leave an intense impression in such a short length of time. Granted, after 37 rounds of electroshock therapy, his character doesn’t even remember being a mathematician or why it ever interested him. He comes into the lives of Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) as they struggle with the decision of whether to escape the “hopeless emptiness” of their lives and move to Paris, which everyone thinks is crazy. All except John. “The hopeless emptiness? Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.” What does it mean when the crazy guy is the only one who understands you?
1.) Ian Malcolm, “Jurassic Park” (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
Jeff Goldblum as a mathematician doesn’t make much sense in Jurassic Park. His character is essentially one of the film’s sources of comic relief, and he’s dressed and acts like a 90s womanizing douchebag. This is rather contrary to most portrayals of mathematicians in film and TV, which may have been an intentional bucking of convention or may just be an admission that just because you’re into math doesn’t mean you aren’t a dick. That said, he’s still very likeable, which is mostly due to Goldblum and his charismatic performance. Whether he’s trying to impress and flirt with Laura Dern by explaining chaos theory to her or trying to talk some sense into Sam Neill by telling him just because he can doesn’t mean he should, Ian Malcolm is film’s best math asshole.