Movie Review: “Life of Pi”
Life of Pi is a difficult movie to review.
Certain to be one of the year’s most widely-discussed films, in part because it’s open to multiple interpretations, this is a bold cinematic achievement by a master craftsman — namely Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain).
Yet, it’s also fundamentally flawed, its most puzzling script gaps camouflaged by extraordinary special effects and first-rate performances by three actors who portray the lead character at different stages of his life. Indeed, the varied imagery and wide range of emotional demands upon the actors are so compelling that one might actually overlook the glaring contradiction within the film’s most intriguing question — which deals with the storyteller’s relationship with God. The film is such a powerful visual spectacle that the audience deserves an equally consistent storyline — and ultimately just as satisfying a payoff — which compliments the arduous endurance test of sitting through feels like an overly-long 2 hour and 20 minute epic journey across the world’s biggest ocean.
First, the basics. “Pi” is an Indian-born boy who enjoys an almost idyllic childhood. If Norman Rockwell’s traditional vision of small-town America has an Indian counterpart, Pi is living it. His early years are spent growing up in a tropical seaside paradise located on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Pi’s family owns and operates a zoo with several exotic animals, built on land leased from the city. But the boy’s dream ends with a rude awakening. He’s about to grow up fast.
When Pi becomes a teenager, he learns that his father has decided to disband the zoo and move the entire family abroad. This leads to a life-changing adventure. To its credit, the story challenges many conventional assumptions about new immigrants. We assume immigrants are thrilled to be in a new homeland. But that’s not always the case. After all, what child wants to be uprooted from a house near the beach, living happily among zoo animals — as is the case with Pi? I found this to be a powerful message — no doubt experienced by many very real immigrant children — which I had frankly never considered before. Sometimes, immigrants leave happy lives behind when forced to move elsewhere due to circumstances beyond their control.
Pi’s father decides to transport the family and their most prized zoo animals to Canada, which is to become their new home. And so, Pi and his family board a rustic cargo ship scheduled to cross the vast Pacific Ocean, with several wild animals from what had been the family zoo boarded in steerage.
A deadly typhoon changes everything. During the storm, Pi is thrown into an open lifeboat and is ultimately forced to survive on his own at sea. To make matters more challenging, and undoubtedly more interesting for the audience, a few of the wild animals manage to find sanctuary inside the meandering lifeboat along with a terrified Pi. One of the animals that climbs aboard happens to be a vicious Bengal tiger.
Oddly enough, the story is entirely plausible up to this point. In the interest of avoiding spoilers for those who have not seen the movie, let’s just wrap up the plot by saying Pi and his beastly companion end up spending many months at sea together locked in a battle for supremacy and survival. As one can imagine, the demands which would be extraordinary were Pi sailing solo are magnified tenfold by the presence of a wild beast that views everything on the boat as his next tasty meal.
One thing which can be revealed is that Pi somehow manages to survive the ordeal. The story is told in flashbacks by an older and wiser Pi, ostensibly living somewhere in Canada in the present day. These segments introduce the film’s most puzzling assertion.
The movie includes strong religious overtones throughout. Pi’s early years are spent searching for God and the right religion to join. This is a pervasive theme throughout all stages of the film — including childhood, the ordeal at sea, and modern adulthood — which sets up the central character’s most poignant moment of self-discovery. This takes place when the adult Pi, now in his early 40s, reveals to the listener that the perilous sea voyage enabled him to better know and understand God. The reflection is largely positive.
Alas, Pi spends considerable time praising God as his savior at sea. After all, the necessities for survival were ultimately provided to him.
And therein lies the glaring contradiction. Pi reveres the same God who essentially murdered his entire family, needlessly sent dozens of innocent animals off to a torturous and terrifying death, and transformed him into an orphan in a strange land — not to mention having to endure a hellacious sun-drenched period of terror on the high seas for 227 days. If God is to be praised for providing precious food and water at opportune moments while exposed at sea for months on end, shouldn’t the same divinity also bear the blame for causing so much death and misery in the first place?
“Gee God — thanks for the tuna and rainwater. I guess that’s payback for drowning my giraffe, two elephants, plus my mom and dad.”
Mysteriously, this query never surfaces.
Personal Note: I feel compelled to add that I can go along with movie themes I may not agree with. Even though the concept of God and religion is an anathema, I’m willing to accept alternative points of view, particularly in a movie. The most obvious example of accepting and enjoying something we may not actually believe in would be watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” during the holiday season. Most of us don’t believe in angels. But we go along with the film’s basic premise. Similarly, I was willing to accept the religious overtones, had they been portrayed more convincingly.
Moreover, the beautiful imagery — so worthy of whatever Academy Award nominations exist for cinematography and special effects — becomes something of a distraction in this Robinson Crusoe-type tale. Several short interludes interrupt Pi’s struggle at sea (and the story), which are intended to show off a kaleidoscope of splendor. Although I did not experience the 3-D version (there are two versions of this film — 2-D and 3-D), several 45-second scenes of various sea creatures do make for a much-needed break from the terror of being stranded in an open boat with no rescue in sight. Unfortunately, these scenes in no way serve to advance the story nor answer any of the fundamental questions and judgments which Pi is entitled to make following his experience.
To be clear, Life of Pi is not a film for children. It’s being promoted as an action-adventure with a boy as the star, and various animals as the supporting cast. But these are not Disney animals. They are wild beasts capable of killing in an instant. There are several scenes of savagery, which left may children screaming and crying in the showing I attended. For those expecting to see Beauty and the Beast at sea, think again. More like Castaway meets The Defiant Ones.
In summation, this is a spectacular cinematic achievement, which will undoubtedly be rewarded at Oscar time. Deservedly so.
Everyone will take away something different away from this movie. My interpretation is that life — even when filled with the prospect of danger and death — can be mesmerizing, even beautiful. If that was Ang Lee’s intended message, then he succeeded beyond all imagination. However, if this film was intended to be something of a spiritual awakening, in fact, this is a movie which cannot be rescued. That message remains aimlessly adrift at sea.
Rating: 7 Stars Out of 10