Although the two disciplines might seem poles apart, the art of moviemaking is in fact made possible by the principles of mathematics. Without maths working its magic behind the scenes, little of what we have come to expect from the modern movie would remain. From the design and manufacture of equipment, to animation, cinematography and special effects, mathematical concepts are at the very heart of the movie production process, providing the platform on which motion pictures are made.
In front of the camera too, maths has gradually emerged as a subject of almost universal appeal. Whether cast in a starring role or playing a minor part, maths has consistently demonstrated the power to engage an audience on both an intellectual and emotional level. And whilst it's true that some movies do little to dispel the myth that maths is boring and monotonous, most serve to illuminate a subject whose reputation is ill-deserved. In this blog post we count down our top five maths movies…
Loosely based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, Theodore Melfi’s 2016 movie tells the story of three female African American mathematicians and the roles they played in the space race. Against a backdrop of race and gender inequality, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, prove themselves integral to NASAs mission to make John Glenn the first American to orbit Earth, and subsequently serve as trailblazers for future generations.
Why we love it:
Melfi’s picture brings the important story of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson to a wider audience. The movie has a superb cast - Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe in the principal roles; Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst and Mahershala Ali in support. It opens our eyes to the ‘cool’ applications of maths, and perhaps even inspires a few astronauts of the future.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and based on Andrew Hodges 1983 biography, The Imitation Game centres on Alan Turing and a team of Bletchley Park cryptographers, tasked with deciphering the Enigma code during the Second World War. Despite reservations by some of his colleagues, a determined but somewhat difficult to work with Turing, invents a pioneering electromechanical machine which is ultimately able to decode German messages and save countless lives. However, his pivotal role in Britain’s historic victory does not spare Turing the punishment of chemical castration when his homosexuality is revealed in the early 1950s.
Why we love it:
Benedict Cumberbatch gives the performance of his life as Turing. The movie illuminates an important slice of British and world history, highlighting not only Turing’s genius, but also the horrific way he was treated by the country that he served. That quote! ‘Sometimes it is the people no-one can imagine anything of who do the things no-one can imagine’.
Released in the United States under the alternative title ‘A Brilliant Young Mind’, X + Y is a 2014 British coming of age drama starring Asa Butterfield as autistic maths prodigy, Nathan Ellis. Traumatised by the death of his father - with whom he had a close relationship, Nathan struggles to connect with his mother and has difficulty understanding social cues and relationships. Instead he finds comfort in numbers - an area in which he excels. Taken under the wing of tutor Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), the young genius is prepared for the prestigious International Mathematical Olympiad, where the lessons he learns involve more than just maths.
Why we love it:
The acting. Butterfield gives a convincing performance as a socially awkward, autistic teenager; Sally Hawkins is simply peerless as his mother, Julie. The script (James Graham) and the direction (Morgan Matthews) are both brilliant. It’s a funny, poignant and ultimately, uplifting movie with a great sub-plot.
Ron Howard’s 2001 biopic based on the life of the brilliant American mathematician, John Nash, collected four Academy Awards including the much-coveted Best Picture gong, and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly’s performance as Nash’s wife, Alicia. Many feel it would’ve also brought Russell Crowe his second consecutive Best Actor statuette, had it not been for his untimely altercation with a journalist days before the ceremony. The movie chronicles the highs and lows of Nash’s life from his days as a graduate student at Princeton, to his Nobel prize win for Economics in 1994, depicting his professional triumphs and his struggles with mental illness.
Why we love it:
Russell Crowe is simply mesmerising as Nash. The movie’s stellar support cast including Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Christoper Plummer and Paul Bettany. Its message that even the greatest obstacles can be overcome. Despite his Schizophrenia, Nash won numerous awards for his important contributions to game theory and differential geometry.
The picture that thrust Matt Damon and Ben Affleck into the limelight, and brought the late Robin Williams a richly deserved Academy Award, tops the list of our favourite maths movies! Written by Damon and Affleck whilst the former was a student at Harvard, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting focuses on Will (Damon) - a troubled MIT janitor with a brilliant mind, who is arrested following an attack on a police officer. Spared a jail sentence on the condition that he attends weekly maths sessions with Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) and meets with therapist, Dr. Sean Maguire (Williams), Will begins a journey to reconcile his past in order to make plans for his future.
Why we love it:
Robin Williams gives a career-best performance as psychiatrist Sean Maguire. The movie has a perfect balance of heart and humour. Its relative commercial success sparked an interest in maths, with many students wanting to solve the ‘Good Will Hunting’ problem! The largely underrated supporting cast including Minnie Driver as Will’s love interest and Ben Affleck and younger brother Casey as Will’s friends. An awesome soundtrack!
What’s your favourite maths movie? Did we include it in this list? Get in touch and let us know via Instagram @brainycow or by completing the contact form on our homepage...
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