There’s no subject too obscure or too popular for modern filmmakers. In fact, audiences often expect producers to push the envelope with respect to their genre (or genres). From the actors and actresses to the director and producer, those involved in the filmmaking process commonly want to add a new twist to a cherished theme.
Numbers are a great way to do that—and films of all stripes have incorporated mathematics, probability, and numerical sequences to cover classic stories from new angles. Whether a drama or a thriller or a documentary film, numbers can add new depth to any story.
That’s because not many people deeply interact with numbers on a daily basis. At least, not that they’re aware of. For example, many people play casino games like blackjack (covered below) or roulette to relax. And a closer look at the roulette board quickly highlights just how much probability is involved in the game—even if players don’t realize they’re interacting with numbers on a meaningful level.
Another common hobby around the world is numerology. Numerology is a folk art that reportedly helps people divine the future and a person’s personality based on numbers derived from their names and birthdates. It might not be treated as a science, but the tradition dates back to the year 500BC and is one of humankind’s longest-running interests.
Numbers are often hidden in plain sight like this. So, when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters, which movies shine a light on numbers?
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Considered one of the best dramas of all time, A Beautiful Mind covers one MIT genius who is at the end of his rope. The story revolves around the professor’s journey to focus his mind’s power as delusions creep in. Based on the real life of influential mathematician John Nash Jr., this film weaves history and drama together.
Modern sports involve a lot of data. Data informs how teams train, how they measure a player’s performance, and how they build plans of attack against rivals. But this phenomenon is new. Back in 2002, one MLB manager pushed baseball data crunching, called sabermetrics, to the forefront.
This manager penned a book called Moneyball in 2003, and the 2011 film based on it stars Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill. It covers the 2002 Oakland Athletics’ season in which sabermetrics was used to make front office decisions about recruitment.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Stories based on numbers don’t have to be dry. Back in the late 1990s, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck gained notoriety for penning the script for Good Will Hunting. The story focuses on a janitor at MIT who is discovered solving a highly complex math problem by a professor.
The professor quickly takes an interest in the man’s life, delving deeper into his reasoning behind cleaning MIT versus studying there as a graduate student. Though the film revolves around mathematics, the core story is very human as both the professor and former janitor discover their many similarities.
The card game blackjack requires players to hit the number 21 without going over. The rules are simple, but the game is deceptively difficult. However, there’s an almost foolproof way to win the game… so long as you can count cards. That’s exactly what one MIT team did back in the late 1990s.
The MIT team took to Vegas to rake in hundreds of thousands in winnings by coordinating a group card counting effort. The team’s adventures turned into a book, Bringing Down the House, which was turned into this film, starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, and Jim Sturgess.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Long before computers could spit out accurate calculations, mathematics was done by hand the old-fashioned way. While the process might sound archaic, mental math was the true engine behind the US’s early NASA Programs. And Hidden Figures shines a light on three of the country’s most important mathematicians who worked behind the scenes to send men to the moon.