Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s new film based on the 2001 fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel, tackles the uncinematic tale of a teenage boy surviving at sea with a Bengal tiger. With few typical Hollywood conventions—no romance, chase scenes or celebrities—Lee and writer David Magee are nonetheless challenged with the task of entertaining audiences for a full two hours.
The book is organized in three sections, and the film follows that format. The first section of the film explores Pi’s childhood living on the grounds of a zoo his father owns and operates in Pondicherry, a formerly French-controlled territory in southern In India. Lee takes advantage of 3D technology especially in these opening sequences where the bright landscape and exotic wildlife of tropical India come to life with the startling 3D flight of a hummingbird or the vibrant movements of a flock of flamingoes. For the second section, Lee continues to exploit the 3D into the Pacific where the majority of the films is set on Pi’s lifeboat, amongst dramatic storms and sea creatures. Of course, at this point the foremost concern is the giant CG tiger trying to eat the young man. The third and final section of the film is the recounting of Pi’s survival at sea. Forced to explain the sudden sinking of the ship to representatives of the Japanese officials who oversaw the ship, Pi tells two versions of his tale. All of this is neatly packaged as a conversation between the grown Pi peacefully speaking to an aspiring young writer from the safety and comfort of his Canadian home.
While the film is visually stimulating and honors the book well, it leaves much to be desired. I was not as impressed by what took place before my eyes than by the questions about stories and the nature of narrative the film provoked. As the narrator tells this mesmerizing and unbelievable tale, he also offers the more realistic version, leaving it up to viewers to choose which story they prefer.
It doesn’t give away the end to talk about the fantastical nature of the film and how we are asked to explore the limits of believability. A teenage castaway struggling to survive the glorious and terrible expanse of the Pacific on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger is not a believable premise, yet it is sufficiently entertaining that we are adequately consumed by the details and characters of the story and we want to believe it even if doing so goes against our better judgment.
That appreciating any narrative requires a leap of faith is a plain fact. Filmmakers take us on imaginary journeys, either by the suspense of a horror film or the longed-for consummation of a romance. We tolerate many inconsistencies and stretches of the truth in an effort to hold onto a larger story. The problem with this film is that the larger story holds few truths at all.
Instead, Lee is content simply to ask questions: Who is God? Which religion is true? Are they opposed to each other? How do we know if God is real? Writer, Magee, puts it plainly, “Our goal in writing the film the way we did was to make sure that you could read the story, or stories, in any way you wanted to, and it would be more of a reflection on your own belief system at the end.” For me, that simply isn’t enough. I don’t need a film to function as a mirror to my own ambiguity and doubt, rather, I crave the exposure to alien perspectives, the sense of experiencing someone else’s reality and the clarity of those details. Life of Pi offers none of those opportunities.
Still, Lee gets some points for taking on a beloved book and posing these questions. He goes on to say “I think we always need to pretend to reach the truth … so, I keep doing it. I keep finding new ways to go to the oldest place, to the youngest place.” In that effort, he succeeds. I was left hungering for more substance and that is something most films fail to inspire. Now, off to chew on some more substantial films.