Life of Pi (2012): Written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee. Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall. Rated PG For: Emotional content, occasional scary images. Running Time: 127 Minutes. Based on the novel by Yann Martel.
Rating: 3/4 stars
Life of Pi has been billed in its trailers (and by many who’ve reviewed it) as the next Avatar (Blue-Cat Avatar, not the REAL Avatar), mostly because its focus is on building a story out of stunning and groundbreaking visuals. And, although I did not see it in 3D, the opening credits alone were enough to confirm for me the assurances of others that it is the first film since the said Cameron epic where the 3D actually enhances the film, rather than detracting from it. Unfortunately, stunning special effects and an effective art design are not the only things Ang Lee’s latest project shares with Cameron’s last film.
We open up with a jump forward to after the main events of the film have ended. A middle-aged Pi begins to tell his life story to a struggling writer, which he has heard will convince him of God’s existence. Pi, we learn, is really named Piscine, which he changed early in life due to the subsequent “pissing” jokes he got from his fellow students. His father was an entrepreneur who opened up a public zoo. Both he and Pi’s mother consider themselves “new” Indians, concerned more with modern logic and reason and not traditional religion. Pi does not think that way, however, and in his youth he eventually discovers (and adopts) Christianity and Islam in addition to his Hindu upbringing. His father responds, disdainfully, that “a man who believes in everything believes in nothing.”
Eventually, for.....some reason or another, Pi’s father decides that the family must leave India and go to the United States, bringing the animals with them to sell for the money to start a new life. However, disaster strikes en route, and the entire ship (along with all the passengers) sink into the deepest trench in the ocean. Pi, along with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and a tiger, is the lone survivor, left drifting along on a stocked lifeboat. Within a short span of time, the tiger has killed and eaten the other animals, leaving Pi to figure out how to survive both abandonment at sea AND the danger of a hungry, Bengal tiger.
This is easily the strongest part of the film, and thankfully it takes up the bulk of the running time. It’s also where the art direction and visual effects budget is on full display. Instead of one monotonous shot after another of waves rising and falling, Pi blends the ocean and sky together, so that it’s often impossible to tell where the earth ends and the heavens begin- the boat seems to simply float along in a whole other world from our own. At night, with untold numbers of stars dotting the sky, the boat is surrounded by fluorescent fish and algae, bathing everything in a blue-green glow. Pi never lacks for something to look at, and I honestly found the film to be visually more immersive and creative than Avatar.
The survival-at-sea tale is fairly well-done as well. Unlike in many other man-and-beast movies, the tiger is never personified, or made out to be human in temperament. The tiger enters and leaves the film as a wild animal, able to accept Pi as a fellow creature of survival, but never ceasing to be a constant danger to Pi’s existence.
For all of its clear strengths though, Pi, like Cameron’s Avatar, is held back from being a truly great film by relatively superficial characters and an overall plot that, in the end, fails to achieve real emotional resonance. Aside from Pi, none of the other characters have more than a few scenes at the beginning and end of the film, leaving little room to offer them real depth. And that would be fine if Pi were a strong central character. And yet, even he never really comes across as a flesh-and-blood person. After comparing the scenes of him as a child, young adult, and middle-aged man, there is little discernible difference between the three. He never seems to change, even after living on a boat with a tiger for months on end. Halfway through the film, he states that hunger can make one question everything, but we never see him go through any sort of sustained spiritual crisis. His beliefs at the end of his voyage are exactly the same as they were at the beginning. On top of that, the fact that the film opens up with Pi as a grown man removes pretty much all sense of real tension or danger from the otherwise solid survival story, because, no matter what, we know he’s going to pull through.
In addition, Pi (again, like Avatar) also suffers from a pronounced lack of subtlety. The art direction on display is clearly strong enough for the movie to be able to show and not tell. Even here, though, where the film is at its best, it still feels the need to over-explain everything. Case in point: in one scene, something happens that (without spoiling it) is a huge blow to Pi’s efforts to survive, and visually so. However, as the scene plays out before the our eyes, Pi’s voice cuts through the immense silence, to let us know that, yes, that was, in fact, a VERY bad thing that just happened. I didn’t find Pi’s constant monologueing to be as much of an irritant as others have (the montage of him reading a survival manual is, I think, one of the film’s better parts), but it occasionally borders on the unnecessary or superfluous.
There is a slew of interesting ideas and designs playing out in the film, but few of them are ever explored in depth. Pi’s assertion that Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism need not be mutually exclusive is a great concept (one that I happen to agree with), but after a passing statement that they can coexist, the idea was never again addressed or explored, much to my disappointment. There is an addendum to the tale at one point (not saying when) that offers a possible alternative interpretation of the whole movie as an interesting allegory for human nature, but, again, it’s done so fast and so late that it never has the time or space to develop.
I realize this review may come across as a bit harsh, which is unfortunate, because I really did like and enjoy Life of Pi. I disagree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the year’s best, but it’s creative, beautiful, and inventive, and has plenty of interesting things to say, even if it doesn’t quite say them the way I personally would. My quips with the story and narrative structure only started to surface after I’d left the theater and the spectacular visuals started to fade from my eyes. If you are up for a different kind of film, one that, even if you don’t like it, will at least leave you with something to chew on, you can do a lot worse than Life of Pi.