Life of Pi (United States, 2012)

November 21, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Life of Pi Poster

Life of Pi is a curious juxtaposition of the mundane and the majestic; a film that strives for something grander than what it perhaps achieves. At times, the simple story - one of spirituality and survival - exudes a quiet, hypnotic power, but there are also instances when it strikes a jarringly wrong note, particularly toward the end. The good in Life of Pi easily outweighs the bad but it could be claimed that the production is more remarkable because of superlative special effects than because of its strength of narrative, emotional impact, or allegorical complexity.

The movie, like the book, is divided into three segments. The first introduces us to the central character, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), whose name is short for "Piscene," but who changes it because it sounds too much like "pissing." We are given a brief primer of his early life and an exploration of his views of faith, a morphing philosophy that includes elements of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Essentially, he simply wants to "know" God, so he cherry-picks various aspects of different religions to create his own iteration. In India, Pi's family owns a zoo, so he becomes comfortable around the animals, although he learns a harsh lesson about the true nature of tigers when his father (Adil Hussain) forces him to watch an adult male Bengal, Robert Parker, make a meal of a live goat. Eventually, economic issues force the Patel family to emigrate to Canada. They, as well as the zoo's animal occupants, are packed aboard a freighter that makes the ocean crossing. In rough seas near the Marinas Trench, the ship sinks. The only survivors are Pi and four animals.

The shipwreck occurs roughly 45 minutes into the proceedings. The next hour, which comprises the second segment of the movie, explores the difficulties of crossing the Pacific on a 20-foot long lifeboat. Three of the four animals - a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan - are quickly devoured by the fourth, Richard Parker. Pi abandons the lifeboat for an improvised raft he engineers (which is tethered to the boat), but circumstances eventually force him to forge an uneasy co-existence with the tiger. To do that, he has to prove himself to be the alpha male so he won't be attacked.

The movie's third segment, which has a tacked-on feel, offers an "alternative" narrative of Pi's sea adventures. The problem with this part of the movie is that it is not dramatized. Instead of presenting us with a visual re-interpretation of events, it offers Pi in a hospital bed telling this story, which is fine for a book but not satisfying in a visual medium like film. This results in a profound sense of anticlimax. If a key principle of movies is "show, don't tell," this is violated by Life of Pi's third act.

The movie's structure neuters suspense by bookending the tale with scenes in modern-day Canada that feature a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a Canadian author (Rafe Spall). There's never any question of whether Pi will survive his ordeal - just a question of how bad things will get and how he will manage to co-exist with the tiger. During the course of the story, there are occasional breaks to allow the modern-day Pi to provide some commentary, but these are infrequent enough that they don't interfere with the flow of the story.

Unsurprisingly, the most compelling portions of the movie encapsulate the scenes detailing Pi's lifeboat ordeal. At its best, Life of Pi rivals other recent "survival" stories like 127 Hours and Cast Away. There's an undeniable fascination associated with exploring how Pi's relationship with Richard Parker evolves. The film doesn't make the mistake of anthropomorphizing the tiger. He remains a predator to the end and only becomes Pi's "friend" in the young man's mind. In a way, he's like Wilson was to Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away - the much-needed companion who staves off loneliness.

The special effects used to craft Richard Parker are nothing short of amazing. At no point does one doubt that this is a living, breathing tiger. In all likelihood, the animal is CGI (it's unthinkable that a real tiger would be used in many of these scenes and the creature is too fluid and lifelike to be animatronic). And, although Richard Parker is the most obvious example of top-notch computer design, it's not the only one. The most spectacular instance involves a whale that explodes skyward from the ocean during a scene of eerie, breathtaking beauty. The shipwreck is also impressive, although director Ang Lee doesn't attempt to outdo James Cameron in this department.

Thematically, Life of Pi is as much about faith as it is about survival, arguing that faith is necessary to survival. Pi believes it is the will of god that allows him to stay alive for more than 200 days at sea. His beliefs are not traditional - early in the film, his father chides him for attempting to follow so many different religions - but he would describe himself as deeply spiritual. His journey is the will of god and, like Job, he doggedly accepts every setback without cursing the divine being to whom he prays.

Director Ang Lee, who accepted this project after a number of other high profile filmmakers departed, has a more successful relationship with special effects than he had with Hulk, but Life of Pi plays more to his strengths as a filmmaker, focusing on exploring the internal life of a character. Lee wisely selects an unknown actor, Suraj Sharma, for the title role. With no other screen associations to his name, there's no difficulty identifying him as anyone other than Pi. For someone without previous professional acting experience, Sharma acquits himself admirably and manages not to be upstaged by either the tiger or the sea. The cast is comprised largely of faces who will not be overly familiar to mainstream American audience (although Irrfan Khan and Tabu are well-known to Bollywood movie viewers). Originally, Lee cast Tobey Maguire as the writer to whom Pi tells his story, but Maguire's scenes were eventually re-filmed with Rafe Spall in the part because Lee felt it would be too jarring for viewers to see a high-profile actor in a small role.

Life of Pi is a gorgeous movie; the decision to film and release it in 3-D may hurt it with more sophisticated viewers, who have largely abandoned the format as cheap and gimmicky. Lee uses 3-D more overtly than some recent filmmakers but he avoids too many "showy" shots. There are also questions about whether the lack of vibrant color in some scenes is a deliberate stylistic choice or a 3-D artifact. My impression is that, on balance, 3-D neither adds nor detracts from the overall experience; it's a question of individual preference.

Life of Pi is difficult to market. There's no easy way to sell a story in which half the movie is spent alone with a man and a tiger floating around the Pacific on a boat. Lee's success as a filmmaker is that he makes this relationship as interesting as one between two human beings and uses the lack of dialogue as a strength. Life of Pi has a weak ending (more disappointing than disastrous) but the strange approach taken to the "alternative" story in no way detracts from the surehandedness with which the "primary" one is told. There's an audience out there for this movie, but the question is whether they will find it.

Life of Pi (United States, 2012)

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain, Tabu
Screenplay: David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
Music: Mychael Danna
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: 2012-11-21
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Animal violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1