Title: Life of Pi
Year: 2012
Genre: Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Play time: 
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriters: David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain

Life of Pi is built around a revelation and thematic punchline that is such specious nonsense that nothing else it says or does or shows us really matters. The development in question comes, I learn, directly from the Booker Prize-winning quasi-fantasy novel by Yann Martel, which director Ang Lee has faithfully adapted in gleaming, beautiful 3D. It deliberately undermines everything that came before it, and expresses a worldview I personally find odious. But leave that aside: it doesn’t work on its own terms. What’s meant to express an approach to faith when empiricism fails instead suggests a method of running away from the truth when doing so feels better.

It’s hard to discuss this specifically without spoiling the film, which needs a certain degree of viewer blindness to do its work. Put it this way: Life of Pi is a story of survival that isn’t what it seems. On the surface, it plays like a story of physical endurance and ingenuity. An Indian teenager is orphaned in a shipwreck and ends up stuck on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Thompson.  (Never mind why or how.) If thirst and the baking sun don’t kill him, the hungry tiger would be delighted to. Can he survive until he finds land or someone finds him?

The story is told in flashback by the boy, Pi, now grown up and teaching religious studies at a university in Montreal. A wide-eyed novelist has come to hear it after being told that Pi’s tale would “make him believe in God.” And it’s here that we start to get the sense that there is something more here than meets the eye — or maybe something less. Suffice it to say that the story of Pi’s survival is actually as much psychological as physical. And it has something important to teach us about faith and spirituality.

That’s the idea anyway. When the lesson comes, it’s crass and ridiculous, to the point where at first I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. The movie floats the idea that truth is a matter of preference — that given two versions of events, when neither seems provable, you choose the one you like best and call it an evening. I’d be willing to cut Pi some slack on this: dude had a grueling near-death experience. But the film is a parable, and floats this notion as something universal — something that should awe the elder Pi’s writer friend, for example. (And long before getting marooned, Pi spends his childhood worshipping every god he can get his hands on, something that we are retroactively supposed to view as wisdom.) It’s meant to be inspiring, but it’s actually kind of insidious and gross.

The rest of Life of Pi is typically sumptuous work from Ang Lee, who shows here the same facility with visual dazzle that was on display in his underrated take on Hulk. In a film about transcendence that largely falls short, he finds a few moments of pure visual bliss: Pi swept underwater shortly after the wreck, seeing the huge ship, its lights still on, descending to the sea bottom; the doldrums that turn the ocean into a mirror reflecting the baking sun. Newcomer Suraj Sharma, as the teenage Pi, is a charismatic presence with a disarming smile. The opening scenes, with extensive intercutting between the meat of Pi’s story and the awkward framing device, are a little choppy, but once the film hits its stride the adventure at its center is engaging, persuasive, occasionally funny. The extensive CGI is flawless. But it’s all propped up by a philosophical and narrative house of cards. Life of Pi violates one of Roger Ebert’s golden rules – what matters is not what a film is about, but how it is about it. It might have been very good had been about something else.

Eugene Novikov

Seeking in movies meaning and reflection in real-time. On the look out for biography, thriller & drama best pieces.

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