Maths In The Movies

24th July 2017

For older students, stimulating their interest in maths in the wider world can encourage them to view maths as interesting and relevant to them and film can be a great way to demonstrate this. Recently there have been a number of fantastic films released which feature maths in some relevant way and we have reviewed them all:

'The Imitation Game', a blistering biopic of Alan Turing in World War 2 with Benedict Cumberbatch.

'X + Y' which features a troubled autistic young mathematician who travels to the International Mathematical Olympiad in Tapei.

'The Theory Of Everything', a biopic of Stephen Hawking with Eddie Redmayne.

'Hidden Figures' which tells the story of the female mathematicians working at NASA in the sixties who helped put a man on the moon.

'The Man Who Knew Infinity', a historic biopic of the great Ramanujan and his time in the UK starring Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

Maths and science seem to be more popular in Hollywood at the moment and that’s wonderful. However there have been a surprising number of good films featuring maths over the years, and let’s face it, most young people are more likely to be open to watching a film than reading a textbook! Here’s a list of some of the best in our humble opinion.

We recommended joining your local library since most have films to rent cheaply, so do check if they have any of the movies featured below. Otherwise Netflix or Lovefilm are easy and cheap online options. Watching the movies as a family or even in class as an occasional treat are an effective way to encourage kids to engage with maths, and while quite a few of these will only be suitable for teenagers, if chosen carefully there are films for all ages.

'Good Will Hunting' (1997) This is the most ‘adult’ film in our list. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck earned an Oscar for this screenplay about the trials of a tortured young mathematical genius from the wrong side of the tracks in Boston. Rated R for bad language and some sexual content, only recommended for older teenagers.

'I.Q' (1994) The great Albert Einstein takes a break from theoretical physics to try get his intellectual niece together with a charming auto mechanic in this sweet maths and science inspired romantic comedy. Rated PG.

'Moneyball' (2011) Based on the best-selling book, Moneyball tells the story of Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, the Oakland Athletics's manager who refashioned baseball by trusting statistical analysis and mathematical calculations over traditional recruitment methods. Rated PG-13.

'A Beautiful Mind' (2001) starring Russell Crowe, is a moving film about the late great John Nash, a brilliant mathematical prodigy and Nobel laureate who struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. Rated PG-13

Proof (2005) in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a young woman whose brilliant but mentally ill mathematician father has died and she has to deal with her fear that she will inherit his condition as well as with the requests from one of his former students. Anthony Hopkins plays the dead father – not the most cheerful film! Rated PG-13.

'21' (2008) is based on a true story about six gifted MIT students who are trained by their shady maths professor, played by Kevin Spacey, to become experts in card counting and win millions in the Las Vegas casinos. Rated PG-13. Note: does not condone using maths for the purposes of gambling or criminal activity!

'Stand and Deliver' (1988) Edward James Olmos stars in the true story of Jaime Escalante, an American maths teacher whose unconventional teaching methods led to a national scandal in 1982. He coached poor Hispanic students who were otherwise considered un-teachable to pass the demanding AP Calculus exam, and battled to raise educational equality. An inspiring and uplifting film. Rated PG-13.

The DVD of the full length Futurama movie 'Benders Big Score' (2007) contains in the extras ‘Bite My Shiny Metal X’ a Futurama based math lecture with award winning professor Sarah Greenwald.

Greenwald has been teaching math by way of Futurama and The Simpsons for years now, and the show’s creators decided it was time to return the favour. Definitely worth a watch.

Additionally CBS ran a popular TV series called 'Numb3rs' (2005- 2010) in which a world class mathematician helps solve crimes for the FBI using advanced maths. It is a fascinating show which uses real maths throughout, and has really helped make maths seem cool in the same way as the CSI shows have done with forensics.

For the younger members of the family, there are a few films that celebrate maths. One oldie but goodie is Walt Disney’s ‘Donald in Mathmagicland’ (1959), a charming half an hour animation which shows Donald Duck exploring the basic mathematical concepts of shape, geometry and fractions and how maths is integral in everything around us. Click here to see the whole film on Youtube. 

'The Phantom Tollbooth' is a fantastic animated film from 1970, based on the book of the same name. It tells the story of Milo, a bored kid who passes through a magical tollbooth into a fantastical land of pure ideas. Milo and his companions experience many linguistic and mathematical concepts throughout their adventure. A real gem which shows children that using your brain is the best adventure of all.

Flatland: The Movie (2007) is based on the 1884 book Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott. It is about Flatland, a fictional world in 2-d, inhabited by sentient geometric shapes. A square shows us what life is like in 2-d, where the inhabitants are strictly governed by the laws of geometry. After discovering the 3-d world Spaceland, he bravely defies Flatland’s rulers by insisting that the 3-d world is real.

We hope you and your family enjoy these films, and that they provide a different perspective on the fascinating world of mathematics. There are quite a few we have not even featured here so always keep your eyes out – in fact there is one movie in the cinemas right now which we are already planning to watch and review – ‘Gifted’ about a little girl who also just happens to be a mathematical prodigy, and what that will mean for her future and happiness. Check it out!