[Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, and Rafe Spall
MPAA: PG – For Emotional Thematic Content Throughout and some Scary Action Sequences and Peril]
Life of Pi left me awed. It’s a beautiful, exhilarating, deeply human odyssey that strongly affected me on a dozen emotional levels. And yet, I find myself at a crossroads. For as incredible as most of this film is, there are major flaws that keep it from true greatness. Part of me wants to forgive the movie of those flaws thanks in part to how this movie welled up numerous emotions within me, but upon further retrospection, they become larger and impossible to really ignore, let alone forgive. So regardless of how many flaws I list, let it be said that this is still a must-see film with just a few glaring caveats.
I haven’t read the Yann Martel novel which this movie was adapted from, but I can see why many deemed it “unfilmable”. The story follows an Indian boy named Piscine Patel (Played at various ages by Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Irrfan Khan as an adult, and mainly by Suraj Sharma, who occupies the role for the bulk of the film) who changes his name to Pi after being teased by the bullies who call him “Pissing” instead. He lives in a zoo with his family in India, and openly accepts every religion he encounters from Muslim, to Hindu, to Catholic, and so on. When his parents decide that they must move the zoo and its various animals to Canada due to financial troubles, tragedy hits in the form of a deadly storm that sinks their boat, along with Pi’s entire family. The only other survivor, who ends up sharing the lifeboat with Pi, is an enormous Bengal tiger that can eat him up at any given time.
Everything involving Pi’s journey of survival in the middle of the Pacific is the peak of the film’s quality. It’s gorgeous, spellbinding, absorbing, and sometimes incredibly intense–especially for a PG-rated film. It is perhaps one of the best stretches of film I’ve seen this year. The problem, however, is that it’s sandwiched between a lackluster opening 20-30 minutes, and a thematically confused ending.
The first act of Life of Pi centering on his childhood is nicely executed and……er, that’s about it. It’s just “nice”. It isn’t really involving on an emotional or storytelling level, and seems to be there solely for the purposes of set-up. Which isn’t a bad thing, but it also doesn’t help that it’s so tonally different from the rest of the movie, which is a harrowing journey through both the high and low points of human nature. The other main problem with this segment is that you can tell that this is not what the filmmakers even want to be focusing on, as if they’re biding their time until the stupendous shipwreck comes along. But what really doesn’t help make things any better is that it’s told through an unwieldy framing device involving an adult version of Pi telling his life-story to a writer who wants to create a book about his trials. Not only does it feel tacky, it robs the central survival story of its suspense when you’re fully aware that Pi is going to survive through the end.
But what’s even more perplexing is that once the movie kicks into high gear (after an incredibly intense shipwreck sequence, no less) and moves onto what the real focus is–Pi’s 227 days spent in the middle of the Pacific Ocean–all of the aforementioned flaws wash away. It’s so engrossing that you forget about the fact that Pi inevitably survives through the end, but that factor can also be attributed to how director Ang Lee wisely decides to not cut back to the present day sequences for 95% of the journey, focusing solely on Pi, his lifeboat, and the tiger he must choose to either kill or tame. The result is a staggering leap in quality and emotional resonance.
Pi’s struggle for survival is made completely absorbing for two main reasons: Ang Lee’s masterful direction, and a deeply sympathetic performance from first-time actor Suraj Sharma. Suraj has a presence that is charismatic and immediately sympathetic, bringing to mind comparisons to a similar turn from Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire (Which, coincidentally, is also a break-out performance from an Indian actor). What’s even more surprising is that Sharma has actually never acted before, seemingly just “discovered” out of the thin blue by Lee and the casting directors. The plus-side to non-professional actors is that, if you pick the right ones, you can get an incredibly naturalistic performance that comes from an instinctual channeling of real life (See also: Quvenzhane Wallis from this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild). Sharma has that in spades, holding our attention despite being the only human cast member we see for over 60 minutes, and allowing us to really care about Pi’s plight.
As for Ang Lee’s direction, part of me wants to just copy and paste the words “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD” for an entire paragraph, but I’ll elaborate further. Like Sharma, Lee holds our attention in such a limited environment thanks to dynamic visuals, astounding cinematography, and a courage to refuse shying away from the darkness of Pi’s situation, in spite of the PG rating. Lee manages to give the waters surrounding Pi a variety and a sense of life that keeps the visuals from being monotonous. The most spectacular moments involve completely reflective and still waters, making it look as if sea and sky are one, with the lifeboat being the only thing floating in between. Other visual flairs include the numerous wildlife that Pi encounters, from flying fish, to glowing jellyfish, and even an enormous whale.
Contributing to the visuals is what is literally the best use of live-action 3D I have ever seen in any film, beating out Avatar and even Hugo in its visual splendor. The world of Life of Pi feels alive and breathtaking already, but with the 3D, I became completely immersed in the journey, feeling as if I was trapped in that lifeboat with Pi, and experiencing a strong connection with the events that unfolded on screen. Ang Lee’s use of 3D should make James Cameron profoundly jealous, because Lee ends up creating a more lively, breathtaking, gorgeous world with a $100 million dollar budget, than Cameron did with over $250 million.
But what really stands out from Ang Lee’s direction on an emotional level is how he doesn’t sugar-coat Pi’s struggle, despite a PG-rating. This is very much an adult film with some intense and even terrifying sequences that don’t shy away from the fact that Pi is in perpetual danger at all times. The added threat of the Bengal tiger makes things even more nerve-wracking, as Pi desperately attempts to misdirect the beast so he could grab supplies from the boat, get room to rest on the boat, all while still needing to maintain its hunger so that it doesn’t grow starving enough to want to eat him.
Added to this is that Pi has a growing relationship with the tiger, who has been charmingly named “Richard Parker” because of a filing accident, and their bond feels natural and believable. This is thanks in part not just to Suraj Sharma’s performance, but also because of some incredible CG work to create a believable tiger that realistically interacts with Pi (Though the filmmakers still use real tigers for some of the shots). Pi’s gradual taming of the beast is unfolded in an organic fashion. The film doesn’t let Pi or the audience off the book too easily, building their relationship at a methodical pace that feels realistic and doesn’t cheat the story’s logic, all while still maintaining the suspense that the tiger brings.
At no point does the film ever feel like it “cops out”, creating a rewarding experience that really sticks with you…that is until act three rolls in.
After a long period without interference, the film jarringly cuts back to the present day framing-device, reminding the audience of the eventual outcome of Pi’s story. But that’s not too big a deal since shortly after the reintroduction is the ending, which ballsily goes for a more somber, purposefully anti-climactic approach that I appreciated greatly. But what comes after it is where the movie starts to introduce some thematics that are very shakily constructed. I can’t give this scene away, because that would spoil the movie, but let me just say that a character literally spells out all of the themes and what each element of the film represents in the most intrusive and unnatural fashion imaginable, completely removing any of the nuance or detail that the film would’ve had if it went for a more ambiguous direction.
And despite that, the filmmakers still attempt to go for a slightly ambiguous ending to make up for it, but it too completely falls flat on the ambiguity scale. Without giving away the context, the film offers two different viewpoints you can go with, their dichotomy symbolic of the struggle between faith and doubt. The problem, though, is that the film is entirely one-sided, clearly favoring one viewpoint over the other. You can tell that Lee is trying to give the second interpretation some weight and meaning, especially through one exceptionally well-acted monologue that is shot in one single take, but it fails to land.
Before this ending, Life of Pi could’ve been about anything and everything, with just hints of the theme of spirituality that sprinkled in more detail, and I would’ve been more than okay with it. But in attempting to be about one specific thing as things come to a close, the film shoves its own meaning down your throat rather than allowing you to relate to it in your own way. Perhaps this explanation was added in because it was in the book, and in a literary format, one could get away with such a trick. But in the cinema, one has to show instead of tell, and this moment completely goes against that golden rule, especially when compared to the awe-inspiring second act of the film.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh on this film’s ending, mostly because I was so deeply moved by it and I wanted the entire thing to be as perfect as its myriad of flawless moments. And it doesn’t make the movie bad by any means. This is still one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences I’ve had in the theater this year and I would gladly put it in my top 10 of 2012 list. But with those aforementioned flaws, it’s just a few scenes shy of pure greatness.
Final Verdict: Life of Pi is a stunning achievement that entrances on both a visual level and an emotional level. Featuring some of the most breathtaking scenes of the year, gorgeous imagery, a great performance from newcomer Suraj Sharma, the best use of 3D ever done in a live-action film, and a plethora of powerful moments, this is a can’t-miss experience that will linger with you long after you leave the theater, in spite of its thematic confusion and lackluster opening. A visceral achievement unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
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See ya next time! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna ask Ang Lee if there’s a deleted scene in which Pi drinks his own piss. Bear Grylls ain’t got nothin’ on Pi Patel!