Life of Pi
(2012 – Director: Ang Lee Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan)
Life of Pi still has me thinking about the film. On its surface it’s a storybook tale of a grand adventure, but underneath is a journey to find God.
Life of Pi is unlike anything I’ve seen Ang Lee make. Sure he’s taken some big projects such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and 2003′s Hulk, but nothing compares to the scale that Pi is and the technical genius it took to pull it off. As I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but ask how this was turned into a movie. Not because it was boring or stupid, but because of the nature of the story. A boy stranded on a lifeboat with zoo animals after being shipwrecked and losing his entire family?Almost the entire movie takes place on the lifeboat. Just them and the ocean. That is much more of a struggle than say, Cast Away. It was reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat in that Lee’s creativity was pushed to the max to keep the visual interest despite the lack of scene change. Big props to Lee and cinematographer, Claudio Miranda. And I haven’t even begun to mention how amazing Suraj Sharma is as Pi. He’s forced to act almost the entire film with a CGI tiger named Richard Parker. The range of emotions, the delicacy of his timing, the weight of the entire movie resting on his shoulders, all exquisitely done.
Life of Pi is a technical marvel. There’s no doubting that. And I never thought I would say this, but if you go and see it, I recommend seeing it in 3D. It really does lend it’s hand well to the visuals and the story in a way that films like Avatar and Prometheus didn’t. Pi required a ton of effects. The tiger, I’m sure most of the ocean effects, the boat, etc. etc. With the tone of the movie and scale of the project there was no avoiding it. I felt like the 3D actually helped me not concentrate on the CG. It blended in with the depth of the 3D and helped me focus on Pi. No matter how good CG is, if it’s a big part of the movie, it distracts me. For example, Gollum in the LOTR movies is incredibly well done, but you can’t not look at him and be reminded that he’s a CGI character. I never felt that way once with Richard Parker despite the large amount of screen time he’s given. Way more than Gollum ever was.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’m going to talk about the ending and have some major spoilers, so look away.
I felt like the flashback nature of the movie as it’s being told as a story was interesting. This isn’t your typical script. There’s no real plot twists. There’s no large supporting cast. There’s only Pi. The prologue of his life could have been a movie all unto its own. There’s a sense of larger than life elements to the story right from the get go, but that really adds to the curiosity and playfulness of Pi. We see Pi join Hinduism, Christianity, and then Islam. His sense of God is strong and has wonderful insight into his spiritual life. His father warns him of religion and enforces reason and logic. His mother tells him that his father is right in that it will help his mind, but it won’t help his heart. It’s this conversation with his parents at the dinner table that really sets the stage for the meaning of the film.
From the very beginning, the older Pi tells the author that his story will make him believe in God. Talk about some lofty goals by a movie. It immediately sets a tone of doubt with the audience. So Pi tells the author his story. He travels on a ship with his zookeeper parents to Canada but not before the ship sank and Pi was forced onto a lifeboat with no one but a few zoo animals as he watched his entire family go down in the ship. Eventually Pi is alone with Richard Parker and we see an endless struggle between the two to stand their ground. Pi and Richard learn to co-exist. He learns to train the tiger. Richard learns to obey. Without each other, they would surely die. After several adventures and encounters at sea, they finally wash up on the Mexican shore.
As Pi is in the hospital, the Japanese owners of the ship force him to tell them a story that is believable. So he tells him one that makes more sense. One that doesn’t include animals. I’ve read that some people saw this story as a sort of twist ending revealing that the entire movie, him out on sea with a tiger, was false. Just a story. I don’t think that’s what the movie is really telling us though. The author writing Pi’s story shows doubt that his story with Richard Parker was true. But when asked to choose between that story, and the more realistic story, he chooses the tiger story. And Pi responds that, that reveals God. When faced in life to look at something for what it may be, or to have a sense of wonder in this world and belief that something more powerful is at work, it’s easy to make that choice. But it’s left to the viewer to make that choice. Do you want to believe that he was lying, or do you actually believe he was at sea with a tiger for 200+ days? It’s a story about faith and makes even the biggest of skeptics overcome the greatest challenge of faith, believing the unbelievable. It’s a story the filmmakers leave in the hands of each viewer. What kind of person are you? Which story do you prefer to believe?
The ending made me forgive some things about this movie. I didn’t like the overlayed transitions. Serious mood killers. There were times where I didn’t feel very connected with Pi emotionally. I felt like rather than taking a spiritual journey on the sea we saw too much of going from one scene to the next. There were glimpses of beauty, but not enough. My favorite scenes were those. Where Pi looks into the depths of the ocean and his reality is blurred from his dreams. Where Pi explores the carnivorous floating island and decides that his purpose in life isn’t to be complacent, but rather to continue on his journey.
Other things that bothered me were the different aspect ratios. I didn’t quite understand the need for it. There’s one shot in 1.33:1 for no reason. An entire scene in 2.35:1 for no other reason to have some fish fly outside of the screen. Weird choice.
The ending is what makes you think about it long after the credits end. It’s what pushes this movie over the edge into greatness. But even without the ending, this movie is a gorgeous film that is worth seeing in theatres.