Early on Life of Pi makes the bold, and if you think about it rather arrogant, claim it is a story that will make you believe in God. Yet once it’s over, it has almost the opposite effect and will likely leave any rational filmgoer more confused than anything. Certainly, I don’t see it being used as an evangelical tool to convert atheists into believers any time soon.
First, however, I suppose I should preface this by admitting I was almost preconditioned to not like the film going in. In my mind, Ang Lee is the most overrated director in my lifetime, and the discussion is not even close. He seems like a nice and smart enough fellow from the interviews I’ve seen, I just personally don’t care for any of his work, even outright hating some of it (cough, Crouching Tiger, cough), and have never understood why critics are so eager to eat his stuff up at every turn. That said, Life of Pi is easily the strongest film of his I’ve seen. The problem ultimately lies in its source material and not his faults as a director, although he isn’t entirely off the hook, either.
With that out of the way – yes, Life of Pi looks amazing, as everyone and their mom seem to be quick to mention. It has some of the best 3D work ever put to screen, rivaling that of Avatar, with several stunningly beautiful sequences involving water and some of the most realistic CG animals money can buy. It also features a fine central performance from Suraj Sharma in his first acting role, who proves to be quite the find. When you think about it, most of the time he’s either by himself playing off of imaginary things or in front of a green screen, a difficulty for any actor, much less someone making his debut, and he handles it like a veteran. The always-reliable Irrfan Khan does fine work as the adult Pi as well.
Pacing has always been a major issue in nearly every film Lee has done, and when a little over half your movie is a boy and a tiger stuck together in a boat, obviously there’s going to be some issues to overcome. It’s not as bad as it could have been, but it definitely grows monotonous after awhile. But pacing isn’t the main problem this time. Instead, it’s Pi’s theology and muddled message.
For starters, the defining characteristic of Pi when he is first introduced as a young boy is how he cherry picks from every religion he comes across, in this case Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. I’m not going to open this can of worms, other than to say that at their core those three religions are not compatible in any way, shape or form. Any true follower of one would never claim to also follow the other two.
Whatever. It was showing how naïve Pi was in his youth, as his father points out one night over dinner. I get it, but then it’s basically discarded until rashly tied back in at the end. It all comes across very awkward, while never progressing beyond a rudimentary stage. I don’t know why Hollywood loves to fall back on this kind of vague universalism, (oh look at us, we’re so postmodern!), but it’s becoming a lazy crutch. By not taking a firm stand on anything, you end up saying nothing at all.
In keeping with that theme, we learn at the end Pi’s fantastical journey, which Lee has dutifully shown us, most likely never factually occurred. Instead, it was merely an element Pi concocted to help him deal with the harshness of what really went down on the boat, never mind how neither of his stories seems all that plausible in the first place. But the movie zips right along to culminate with him saying it doesn’t matter which one is true, only which one you personally choose to believe in, and that is the same with God. Say what?
I understand using an altered form of reality as a coping mechanism it was attempting, which was more dramatically convincing in something like Pan’s Labyrinth, and finding inherent truth in storytelling, even among greatly exaggerated tales, a la the excellent Big Fish. Yet these conclusions come across much too hastily and underdeveloped when revealed in the climatic hospital scene, and it is no help when Sharma chooses that moment to turn in his least effective acting in the entire film.
No matter what interpretation you have, it just feels clumsily handled and way out of left field, akin to resembling a thrift shop version of Robert Shaw’s famous Jaws monologue. For someone as cynical as myself, who always thought Pi’s boat ride was far fetched to begin with but didn’t buy into the “real” explanation either, I was really left scratching my head. You’re telling me he actually survived 227 days in that boat? As Gob Bluth would say, “Come on!!”
The most unexpected and interesting part of Pi has been seeing the wide variety of readings people have taken away from it so far. After only a single week I’ve already thought about it more than most films from 2012, so on that level it can be considered a great success. I’ve even come to accept and somewhat make peace with the ending, or at least more than I did when walking out of the theater, centering around the idea of Pi being a postmodern version of Pascal’s Wager. If you have a 50/50 choice between a fantastical explanation (God, religion) and a natural reality (neither), you have nothing to lose and theoretically everything to gain with believing the former to be true. If it makes you feel better and allows you to make sense of life more easily, well, then hooray for you.
As previously alluded, however, Pi never clarifies what its big metaphor actually represents, instead indirectly implying one story is as good as any other, because no matter what the ship still sinks. All roads lead to Rome, theologically speaking. It reminded me of the hollowness of Lost’s finale more than anything else, and we all know how well that went over. Or, maybe in a Lost-esque twist, the filmmakers were really trying to suggest Pi’s worldview, or any belief in God for that matter, is as irrational as the number his nickname derives from and nothing more than a child’s parable.
Either way, I wish there was a more compelling argument presented onscreen. Maybe there is in the book, because the story has the basis for a meaty subjective versus objective truth discussion and why it is we do believe in the things we do. Yet as something that repeatedly states its primary thesis to be a story that will make you believe in God, it falls woefully incomplete and inadequate.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, of course there isn’t a lot of depth to Life of Pi. It is based on a children’s novel after all.” But any such argument is disqualified for something being positioned as a genuine awards contender and coming from a previous Best Director winner, not to mention what C.S. Lewis said about the nature and power of telling a children’s tale. For instance, it shares many passing similarities to last year’s Hugo. Both were released at the same time of year, are based on popular children’s books, feature acclaimed directors tackling 3D for the first time, etc. Yet with his, Scorsese was able to tap into a legitimately profound portrait on the power of storytelling, while grounding it in a fulfilling emotional core.
Sure, Ang Lee did the best with what he had to work with. Life of Pi is a well-made effort after all, the highest complement I’ve paid the filmmaker before. In the end, though, its lasting impact will likely be about the visuals and not the substance, or lack thereof. It might be directly attributable to the original source, it might not be. But when all is said and done, it was Lee’s decision to turn Pi into a $120 million film in the first place, and thus the final result falls squarely on his shoulders.