Nick is a young man with a special ability he doesn’t quite understand. He sees numbers floating above people’s heads. The numbers signify various quantifiable measurements regarding an individual ranging from how much money they have, how many lies they’ve told, how old somebody is or how many drinks somebody has. Nick doesn’t quite understand why he has the ability he has, but in his ventures he encounters a woman, Mia, with the same ability. However, her ability is much more refined than his and she helps him to better understand his power.***SPOILER WARNING***
Mia explains to Nick, the “rookie”, that these numbers eventually diverge a pattern. That the randomness of the numbers themselves decrease over time and become more specified, revealing a particular and singular type of quantity. Mia’s pattern became defined as seeing the quantity of lies a person has told throughout their life. Nick is still in his early stage where he has yet to define or even discover the existence of a pattern. She informs him of other specialized patterns people with their ability have, one of which, known as the ‘reaper,’ includes the ability to see the amount of days an individual has to live. Mia also teaches Nick how to turn the numbers off. But his naivety and in a sense lack of experience with his ability prevents him from succeeding. She explains to him that in order to turn off the numbers, one has had to experience pain. At that moment, Nick sees the number above her head, which he was under the impression was her age, decrease. He sees for the first time what a reaper sees: how many days she has left to live. This realization, combined with the growing affection he had toward Mia, provides him with the pain necessary to turn the numbers off.
This moment is a crucial one, both in terms of the film as a narrative, but also in terms of how we can approach it and identify with it as viewers. In many ways Mia reveals to Nick the hard truth of the real world. While Nick has been experiencing life, seeing what it is he wants to see, Mia reveals to him a darker side of his power, and in a sense, a darker side of reality. Prior to this revelation he presumed he was seeing people’s ages. Nick understood the numbers were related to their age, but little did he know he was looking out the amount of time left a given person had to live.
The film possesses a certain futuristic appeal, not only because the idea that these sorts of supernatural abilities can easily seem like an evolutionary advancement associated with the future, but because of the numbers themselves combined with hyper-actively digital landscape surrounding them. The bright and colorful Seoul cityscape filled with neon lights certainly points toward a cinematically futuristic landscape.
In many ways the film addresses the burden of knowledge. Nick’s ability, and thus knowledge, seems an exciting attribute to possess, but the more he learns, the more he sees, and the more he gains knowledge, the more his ability, and thus knowledge, becomes a burden. The film secondarily addresses the relationship between love and choice. In the same way that Nick does not choose his ability and does not choose his pattern, he also does not choose the person he cares for.
It’s difficult not to make an association between Numbers and Death Note, and while there certainly are some similarities, there certainly are some differences as well. They are similar in the sense that there is a shared ability to see a person’s lifespan appear in numerical form above a person’s head. However, Deathnote is much more concerned with ethical practices and consequences, whereas Numbers is more concerned with epistemological consequences.In the end we can’t help but wonder if the ability Nick has will become as dark as Mia proposes. Or if there might be a chance he can use his personal will to overcome the pessimistic worldview. What we’re left with still is a question about the film’s conclusion and what is ultimately in store for Nick. Do we assume that because he sees her numbers decrease that he will, in fact, turn into a reaper? Or do we assume that he’s only been introduced to another aspect of his ability, but his pattern will be revealed over time. After all, moments before he was seeing numbers signifying a wide variety of things including drinks consumed and wealth.