Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fermat's Room

Well blimey o'reilly, if this isn't just the sort of film that we maths teachers going to the movies have been waiting for. Not only does it have a mathematician in the title, there's even four mathematicians in the film (some of whom are even not-too-bad-looking) - all trapped together in a room trying desperately to solve maths problems before the four walls close in and crush them. And yes, so it is in Spanish, but even then - what's not to like?

Oh yes, I had high hopes for this one, you can tell. Perhaps too high, in fact. Truth be told, Fermat's Room is a decent wee movie that doesn't outstay its welcome (around 100 mins, if I recall correctly) and more or less does what it says on the tin. And that's no bad thing.

If I have one complaint, it's that the film doesn't really deliver much in the way of suspense: despite the set-up, you're not really gripped by what is going on, or anywhere near terrififed. Contrast this with the total brown-trouser job that is Cube, and you can see that the film does seem to fall short in the terror or thrills department.

Overall, I'd award the film pi stars out of five, as an overall movie-going experience. But then of course there's all that lovely maths... speaking of which:

How's the maths?
Well, there's a fair bit here, I must say. Early on things are looking very good indeed: a young, unfeasibly attractive mathematician is busy finalising his "proof" of the Goldbach conjecture (that's when he's not signing copies of his best-selling maths book to swooning young lay-dees - aye right!); and discussions between other characters manage to quickly clock up references to such hard-core maths as Godel's Incompleteness Theorems, and the fact that quite a few famous mathematicians have committed suicide. When our quartet of mathematicians first arrive to be greeted by the eponymous Fermat in the equally eponymous room, they are given mathematical code-names too: Pascal, Galois, Hilbert and Oilva (that's Oliva Sabuco, apparently, a famous female mathematician from the 16th century - news to me too). There's even a fair bit of banter about how mathematicians work, and some laughs to be had throughout the film at the difference between "applied" and "pure" mathematicians. Well, I laughed...

And of course this is All Very Good and manages to go a long way to erasing previous cinematic crimes against mathematics such as Jeff "weird specs" Goldblum's ridiculous turn as a "chaos mathematician" in Jurassic Park.

The only trouble is, when the "ooh we're trapped in a room and will die if we don't solve these problems" bit kicks in, the script-writer seems to have abandoned The Penguin Guide to Dead Hard Maths in favour, say, Maths In Action Book 2B. For it breaks my heart to have to report, the problems they are set are way, way too easy and way, way too well-known to cause supposed high-powered mathematicians any difficulty whatsoever. Quite seriously, they are the sort of puzzles that MIA2B did set as "brainstormers" for 2nd year pupils back in the day. They even dig out the Liar's Paradox, which was used as a plot device by none other than Doctor Who way back in Tom Baker's day (Pyramids of Mars, episode 4, for those taking notes).

I appreciate the difficulty the film-makers face here - after all, the problems need to be reasonably accessible if a general audience is going to make any sense of them, and their solution. But I do feel they could have tried harder. Still, maybe they're preparing a special edition, or DVD extra - Fermat's Room: The Mathematician's Cut - where our heroes have to solve much harder fare?

I'd buy it!


  1. Abd surely see also Jeff Goldblum's turn in Independence Day ..?

  2. Wasn't he more of a computer scientist? But you're right, either way he wasn't exactly doing much to further the uptake of maths/science courses in the senior school...