Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi (2012)
Irfan Khan. Directed by Ang Lee.

Pi Patel is a sixteen-year-old boy on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, all alone. Except for a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. His parents and brother have gone down with the cargo ship that carried them from their old life in India toward their new life in Canada, and he is confronted with all the usual concerns about survival and rescue. Plus that tiger.

The child of secular, progressive, educated parents, Pi has baffled his family by embracing religion at an early age: not only the Hindu religion of his community, but Islam and Christianity as well, finding access to God in all three expressions of faith. You’d expect a boy with such spiritual leanings to expound on them in light of his lifeboat-at-sea-with-a-tiger situation, but then when one’s every ounce of energy is spent on just surviving, perhaps Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs becomes the only religion one has time for. Not only does the voice-over narration of grown-up Pi many years later not discuss his spiritual survival while we observe his struggle, but neither does he do much to deliver on the promise someone else makes that this is “a story to make you believe in God.”

The film can be forgiven for attempting to be a spiritual movie without being direct about its spirituality. Some films I’ve found most spiritually uplifting and satisfying are films that don’t tell us what to think or do. But where films like Groundhog Day and Contact make an attempt to show us how deeply their main characters have been touched by their respective situations, Life of Pi seems content to let the viewer assume spirit-changing growth simply by telling us what the events are. It tells us what happened externally while Pi is at sea, but it doesn’t want to tell us what else happened, and then it doesn’t want to tell us what our takeaway is supposed to be. This is a ripoff because it is clear from the beginning that it wants to be a spiritual movie. It’s as much a spiritual tease as those PG films about crazy college students hanging out at the beach are physical teases.

This attempt at profundity that’s never really arrived at is the film’s great flaw, and if it weren’t such a huge part of the setup, that could also be overlooked, because Life of Pi is visually a breathtaking film. It’s not often you see scene after scene of something you’ve never seen before, but this film does it. I saw it in its 3D presentation, on a very large screen, and for the first time I can think of, the 3D actually enhances the film beyond a level of novelty (No, I have not seen Avatar). My biggest gripe with 3D is the dimming effect the glasses have on the picture, an effect that seems never to be compensated for, and that holds especially true for this film, which tries to dazzle us with bright, shiny, luminous scenery. Given the choice of losing the cool 3D in favor of a brilliant image or accepting the dimmer cinema in favor of the impressive 3D, I’d take the former. It would still be a bunch of stuff you’ve never seen on a screen, but at least it would look better.

I have read the novel upon which this film is based, and the best thing I can say about the comparison is that Ang Lee has made the film version of the novel. The novel’s strengths are a lyrical narrative voice and a main character we can like and believe in (for a time, anyway). The film lacks that voice which can only be delivered in prose storytelling, but it provides a similar effect with amazing visuals and a story that flows easily from one scene to the next. Unfortunately, the novel’s shortcomings are also the film’s, so whether you like the film or not depends mostly on how much in love you fall with those visuals or how readily you can accept the metaphors of Pi’s ordeal as something meaningful and affecting.

Although it is worth a look, it just doesn’t do it for me.


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