Life of Pi (2012)
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Synopsis: A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor: a fearsome Bengal tiger.
Praise for a movie is a double-edged sword. It increases audience expectation while simultaneously setting the stakes a little higher by either creating a kind of subconscious resistance to the exalted reputation of the movie in question or pressuring many people into lavishing praise upon it simply because those who have seen it before them have done so. They seem to think that if they don’t like it, it’s not because the movie contains aspects that they consider to be flawed but because they simply don’t get it the way that they should — the way that everybody else does. This is when reviews stop being subjective and become exercises in paraphrasing the views of the majority — or the loudest. Life of Pi is one such film; it won nearly fifty awards in 2011-2012, ranging from the Academy Award for Best Director to the MTV Best Scared as S**t Performance, and received near-universal praise. So why didn’t I like it as much as I apparently should?
I had no real compunction to watch Life of Pi, but felt that as it had won such acclaim I should at least make the effort. More often than not in these situations I end up enjoying a story for which I originally had no enthusiasm, but that wasn’t the case here.
I left the film as bereft of enthusiasm as when I approached it. I could understand why people marvelled over the visuals (which are frequently outstanding, but also a little too cartoonish at time), but the spiritual side of the story just failed to convince and the twist at the end just irritated the hell out of me. I don’t know, maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for this kind of thing, although I can’t really ever remember being in the correct frame of mind to be able to accept this kind of twaddle as anything more than fanciful nonsense.
The character of Pi, whose full name, Piscine, comes from the French word for ‘swimming pool’ is played by four different actors depending on the character’s age, although the bulk of the responsibility falls upon Suraj Sharma as the young lad, and Irrfan Khan as the fully grown version. Pi is sought out by a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who has been told by a friend of Pi’s that he has a story to tell that would make a great book. Most of the film is an extended flashback in which we learn how Pi, the young child, overcame the indignity of gaining the nickname ‘Pissing’ in school because of his unusual first name. As he grows, Pi learns a number of valuable lessons which prepare him for the trials that are to follow — not least of which is don’t feed hungry tigers by hand.
When Pi is 16 his father decides to sell the family zoo and move to Canada. The entire family, together with a number of the more expensive animals from the zoo set sail, but a ferocious storm sinks their boat. Only Pi survives, to find himself sharing a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an orang-utan who has become parted from her child, a vicious hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It’s not long before the hyena has picked off the zebra and orang-utan and is then in turn seen off by the increasingly hungry tiger, leaving only Pi for dessert (geddit?).
Pi initially tries stamping his authority over the tiger, a misguided quest which leaves him covered in tiger pee. Forced to spend most of his time in a makeshift raft tethered to the lifeboat, Pi must make sneak raids on the tinned food supply under the tarpaulin where the tiger shades himself from the sun, while also providing it with enough food to prevent him from proving too tempting for Richard Parker to resist. To be honest, once the major twist is revealed in the final reel, we’re ultimately left wondering just why we had to sit through everything we do. Pi’s journey becomes increasingly fanciful and bizarre as he grows weaker until reality and fantasy seem to merge.
And that, of course, is the key to the entire movie, which turns out to be an allegory about the durability of human faith. There’s a reason such faith endures, the film argues, and that reason is because we choose to have faith in order to survive the daily trials we all face. To give us a reason to continue living. Deep down, a tiny part of us might know that we’re fooling ourselves, that the world and everything in it was created by natural forces rather than some omnipotent celestial deity, but to openly acknowledge the fact, whether to ourselves or others, would cause our downfall, so we choose the better option. It’s a valid argument, and The Life of Pi certainly makes you ponder its themes — but it would benefit from being told in a less illusory fashion.
Given its central theme, it’s sort of ironic that The Life of Pi depends so much on CGI, modern technology’s closest assimilation of fantasy into the real world (at least, as depicted in movies). None of the animals with whom Pi shares the lifeboat are real; they’re all the product of modern technology. We watch these creations and marvel at their realism, but at the same time some detached part of us knows they are an illusion, and we’re constantly on alert for clues to confirm so.