For film buffs, there are plenty of movies involving mathematical concepts and/or famous figures in the discipline — both real and fictitious. Not sure where to start? Try these 20 films about math, mathematicians and math geniuses.
Over the years, plenty of films and TV shows have had plots about teachers who inspire an underachieving class to perform beyond expectations — 1988’s “Stand and Deliver” was the archetype. Based on the experiences of real-life math teacher Jaime Escalante, “Stand and Deliver” earned an Academy Award nomination and two Golden Globe nominations, including a Best Actor nod at both events for Edward James Olmos’ portrayal of Escalante.
More than 20 years before the release of “The Theory of Everything,” the 2014 Oscar-nominated biopic about Stephen Hawking’s life (which we’ll get to later), there was “A Brief History of Time,” a different biopic about Stephen Hawking’s life. And why shouldn’t the late theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author get multiple movies made about him? He was basically a turn-of-the-millenium Einstein. Also, to differentiate, “A Brief History of Time” (named after Hawking’s most famous work) is a documentary written by Hawking himself, while “The Theory of Everything” is a semi-fictionalized drama.
The words “spy movie” and “Robert Redford” usually make one think of the 1975 classic “Three Days of the Condor,” but that’s not the only film fitting this description. In 1992, Redford starred alongside Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier and David Strathairn in “Sneakers,” a spy caper about a group of hackers, techies and espionage experts who are tasked by the government to steal a code-breaking device, only to get tangled up in the investigation of a mathematician’s murder. For a lighthearted drama, the producers of “Sneakers” took the math aspects seriously and hired Leonard Adleman as a mathematical consultant. At the time, Adleman was mainly known for being the person who coined the term “virus.” However, he is now viewed as the father of DNA computing and was the winner of the 2002 Turing Award for his co-creation of the RSA encryption algorithm, which is now widely used in secure data transmissions.
As a theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman spent a lot of time working with mathematics, most notably in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and in the investigation of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, as well as on his major contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics (for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1965) and particle physics. Based on the semi-autobiographical books “Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” the 1996 film “Infinity” concentrated on two aspects of Feynman’s life: his relationship with his first wife, who tragically died of tuberculosis at the age of just 25, and his work on the A-bomb. Starring Matthew Broderick as Feynman and Patricia Arquette as his wife, Arline Greenbaum, “Infinity” received mixed critical reviews.
Will Hunting (Matt Damon) was a blue-collar janitor working at MIT, but with his self-taught, borderline-genius mathematical intellect, he was better suited as a grad student or faculty member. One night, while Hunting is secretly completing a complex math problem posted on one of the school’s blackboard, Professor Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) discovers Hunting’s capabilities and introduces him to psych professor Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to dig deeper into Hunting’s lack of motivation and inner demons. Written by Damon and Ben Affleck (who appeared in a supporting role) when the duo were unknown 20-somethings, the drama “Good Will Hunting” ended up being purchased by Miramax, directed by Gus Van Sant, and winning Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Williams) and Best Original Screenplay in addition to seven additional nominations in most of the major categories. How do you like them apples?
Mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm was first featured in 1993’s “Jurassic Park” and more recently in 2018’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” but his most prominent role was in the franchise’s second installment, 1997’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” in which he was the protagonist. Interestingly, Malcolm was actually declared dead in Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park,” but after the success of the movie in which he survived, the author wrote him into the book’s sequel, and thus Jeff Goldblum was able to reprise his role in later films. Directed by Steven Spielberg, “The Lost World” also starred Julianne Moore, Vince Vaughn, Pete Postlethwaite and Arliss Howard, and it made $619 million at the box office.
“Cube” is our third entry from 1997, but it’s nothing like the other films released that year. Heck, it’s nothing like any film we’ve ever seen. Basically, it’s about five people trapped in an enormous network of cube-shaped rooms, many of which contain deadly traps. The group members attempt to figure out why they are there and where “there” actually is while also trying to simply stay alive. The weak acting and script didn’t earned “Cube” many positive reviews from critics, but the sci-fi horror flick eventually garnered a cult following thanks to its creative premise and ample gore.
Darren Aronofsky is renowned for films like “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010), but his first movie, 1998’s “Pi,” received acclaim back in its day too. Filmed in black and white with an abbreviated runtime of 84 minutes, “Pi” centers on number theorist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), whose life is as consumed with math and finding patterns as it is with constant headaches, paranoia, hallucinations and social anxiety. Intelligent and engrossing, the cerebral thriller earned Aronofsky a Best Director award at Sundance and a Best First Screenplay honor at the Independent Spirit Awards.
John Nash (Russell Crowe), a math genius bored with his job at MIT, is excited to accept a new gig working for the Pentagon and searching for clues hidden in plain sight that supposedly point to the location of a Soviet bomb. However, Nash’s new boss and job turn out to be figments of his imagination after he’s diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. In danger of losing his family, his freedom and his sanity, Nash must find a way to use his powerful mind to control itself. Based on the true story of mathematician John Nash, the 2001 drama “A Beautiful Mind” capitalized on half of its eight Academy Award nominations, including wins for Best Picture, Director (Ron Howard), Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsmith) and Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly).
After the death of her brilliant but mentally ill mathematician father Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins), Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) has to come to terms with his passing, her relationship with her estranged sister (Hope Davis) and her own brilliance and susceptibility to mental health issues. Jake Gyllenhaal also stars in “Proof” as Robert’s former student, who helps and eventually develops a relationship with Catherine. The 2005 drama failed to break even at the box office but nevertheless earned general acclaim and a Best Actress Golden Globe nod for Paltrow.
The MIT Blackjack Team was a real-life group comprised of both students and former students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and their goal was to beat the house at blackjack in various casinos by card counting and using various other math-based techniques. The 2003 book “Bringing Down the House” is based on the team — albeit with some alleged exaggerations and inaccuracies — and it was later turned into the 2008 film “21.” Although the critical reviews were mixed, the film starring Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, Liza Lapira, Aaron Yoo and Jacob Pitts nevertheless won big at the box office.
Ever wonder who was the first female mathematician in recorded history? That distinction goes to Hypatia, who was also a philosopher and astronomer and lived in the Roman province of Egypt in the fourth century. At a time of religious turmoil, she both preserved and taught knowledge from the classical era, even though it eventually cost Hypatia her life. The influential figure was portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the 2009 Spanish film “Agora,” which debuted at Cannes and eventually became Spain’s highest-grossing film of the year and the recipient of 13 Goya Award nominations, even though the box office numbers only recouped a little more than half of its $70 million budget. Oscar Isaac and Max Minghella appeared in supporting roles.
Prior to the 2002 MLB season, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) takes the advice of young Yale alumnus Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who suggests signing players based on their on-base percentages and other advanced stats called sabermetrics, in lieu of following traditional scouting techniques. Without spending money on big-name players, Oakland ends up having a historic season. This is no fiction tale; it’s what really happened some 17 years ago (other than the fact that Brand’s real name is Paul DePodesta), and sabermetrics have been reinventing the game ever since. Based on the 2003 book of the same name, “Moneyball” didn’t win any Oscars or Golden Globes, but it did earn 10 nominations between the two events.
We can’t even begin to explain the unsolved “P vs. NP problem” in computer science, but we can explain that the 2012 thriller “Travelling Salesman” centers on it, four mathematicians who solve it and the consequences they could face if the solution is released to the world. Directed and co-written by Timothy Lanzone, “Travelling Salesman” earned a warm reception from critics and an Official Selection at the New York International Film Festival.
While the film (and book) “A Brief History of Time” was written by the late Stephen Hawking, “The Theory of Everything” is based on the book “My Life with Stephen” by Jane Hawking, his wife of 30 years. In the 2014 romantic drama, Jane was played by Felicity Jones, while Stephen was portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, who won Best Actor honors at both the Golden Globe and Academy Awards. Jones, for her part, also earned nominations at both events. Directed by James Marsh, “The Theory of Everything” earned near-universal acclaim along with $124 million at the box office.
Based on the life of Alan Turing and the biography “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” “The Imitation Game” earned $234 million at the box office, near universal acclaim, an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore) and seven additional nods. Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Turing, a brilliant British mathematician and cryptanalyst who led a code-cracking team that aided the Allies during World War II. Although respected in retrospect and now considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing’s brilliance wasn’t fully recognized during his lifetime, partly due to his prosecution for homosexuality in 1952. “The Imitation Game” co-starred Keira Knightley, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Nathan Ellis received an autism diagnosis at age 9, but he also received a brain capable of understanding numbers better than almost anyone else. After studying math for seven years, Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is selected to represent the U.K. at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) and is subsequently plucked out of his comfort zone and must learn to adapt to new experiences and overcome his natural distrust of people, as well as his fear of failure. Also known as “A Brilliant Young Mind,” the British drama “X+Y” is loosely based on the early life of 2006 IMO runner-up Daniel Lightwing.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was a brilliant mathematician who grew up poor in India but eventually attended Cambridge and contributed heavily to the field of mathematics in his brief life. Even though he died in 1920 at age 32, his research continued to be confirmed, and it still inspires new areas of research to this day. Ramanujan’s story was recounted in the 1991 biography “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” which was later adapted into a 2015 film starring Dev Patel as Srinivasa alongside Jeremy Irons, Devika Bhise, Toby Jones and Stephen Fry.
Nominated for three Academy Awards (including Best Picture), “Hidden Figures” is the true story of the black female mathematicians who played a crucial role in the early days of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe portrayed real-life former NASA employees Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, respectively, with Spencer receiving Best Support Actress nominations at both the Oscars and Golden Globes.
A mathematically gifted first grader named Mary (Mckenna Grace) ends up in a custody battle between her grandmother (Lindsay Duncan), who wants to send Mary to public school across the country and dedicate her life to math, and Mary’s uncle, Frank (Chris Evans), who wants to give her a normal childhood. Frank strongly believes this is what Mary’s late mother, a brilliant mathematician who took her own life, would have wanted, instead of Mary following in her footsteps. Octavia Spencer and Jenny Slate co-star in the touching 2017 drama, which made $43 million at the box office against a budget of just $7 million.