Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is a middle-aged professor visited at his home in Canada by a stranger in search of a story. The two men share an acquaintance who pointed the writer (Rafe Spall) Pi’s way for a very specific tale. It seems Pi was the lone human survivor of a shipwreck when he was a teenager, and the events between the sinking and his rescue are reportedly enough to make a person believe in God.
The story begins with Pi’s childhood and ends with his post-disaster return to civilization, but it’s the center of the tale that makes up the bulk of the film. And for good reason too, as minor familial interactions pale beside the visual wonders and life-threatening adventures that occur while he struggles to survive adrift at sea. His life afloat is made more dangerous and unpredictable by the presence of a full grown tiger he finds sharing the lifeboat with him, and as a few other zoo animal stragglers succumb to the elements and each other, Pi and the tiger (named Richard Parker) form an uneasy, symbiotic relationship.
Director Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi takes up the challenge with the story’s implied promise of a resultant belief, but neither Pi’s tale nor Lee’s film satisfies on anything more than a superficial level. The beautiful visuals and occasionally tense action offer distractions in the service of empty platitudes and an insulting view of where and how people find their faith. Ultimately, this is a story that doesn’t even believe in itself.
“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all.”
As a young boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) and his family run a zoo in the pleasant city of Pondicherry, India. He finds wonder and fascination at every turn in both the tangible world before him and the far more ethereal one occupied by the thousands of gods who populate his Hindu faith. As his curiosity grows so does his appetite for religions beyond his own, and soon he’s exploring Christianity, Islam and others for the magic they hold and the philosophies they bring to the table.
This continues until the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his family decide to pack up the animals and move to Canada for better lives. Everyone and everything but Pi and a few animals are lost to the sea, and it’s then that his real travails begin. He calls to the skies (and to any gods that may be listening) for a sign as to why he’s there and what comes next, and as with anyone seeking signs… he finds them.
The story purports to be a warm and loving look at faith, religion and the importance of both, but it tries to accomplish that with a scattershot approach that simply throws thoughts at the brightly-colored backdrops to see what sticks. (Spoiler alert: nothing does.)
Opening yourself up to varied world religions is a fine idea, but it doesn’t work based on the rules of those very religions. Accepting everything is the same as accepting nothing, and Pi’s lack of specific conviction is far less inspiring than the story thinks. Doubt, as the film acknowledges and forgets, keeps one’s faith a living, breathing element, and its absence all but negates that supposed faith.
Equally disheartening is the film’s glossing over of the immense suffering and loss happening around Pi as well as his own involvement and culpability. No questions are asked of these blindly accepted deities as his family drowns alongside hundreds of strangers and animals, and the events in the lifeboat lack the expected empathy and emotion, especially by film’s end. The morality being taught is closer to ‘survival of the fittest’ than ‘love thy neighbor’ with strength being rewarded while weakness is devoured. The film’s embrace of that idea and decision to see only the good is false regardless of religious belief.
Faith, the film lazily decrees, is simply what you choose to believe. There’s no value or weight, no struggle or challenge, no real worth at all apparently. Simply choose the flavor that most appeals to you and ignore the ones that don’t.
But for everything it gets wrong with its narrative and theme (and in case I haven’t been clear yet it gets everything wrong with its narrative and theme), it is one strikingly beautiful goddamn movie.
Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have crafted a stunning world between the bookends that brings viewers to the watery edge of nowhere with seas that move between glass-like surfaces and towering, two-story waves. Sea life bursts into being with vivid, dreamlike and occasionally luminous detail while the boat’s non-human occupants feel like truly dimensional creatures. Richard Parker in particular, while a mix of the real and the CGI, is as convincing a character as any other in the film. They even toss a CGI elephant into the opening scene amidst dozens of real animals.
Most surprisingly, Lee has managed the unexpected by delivering a film that viewers should actually seek out in its 3D form. That’s not a typo. Rather than find moments where the 3D can be highlighted for the gimmick it usually is, Lee uses it to make the entire world more immersive and textured. Conversations feel more welcoming, action is far more exciting and it becomes something you experience instead of something you notice.
It really is a beautiful movie. Colors emerge from the screen alongside the action as CGI creations live and breathe as believably as their real-life counterparts. Artificial visions of nature compete with the real thing with no loss of awe or wonder.
So, yes, Life of Pi is a beautiful movie, but all of the beauty is man-made.
The Upside: Impressive and occasionally breathtaking CGI, cinematography and use of 3D; Irrfan Khan is always a welcome sight
The Downside: Insulting, simplistic view on faith; morally confused; overly long; ultimately empty
On the Side: Several directors were attached to the film before Ang Lee secured the job including Alfonso Cuarón, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M. Night Shyamalan