Here we are again. Another film adaptation of a supposedly un-filmable book. One day we’ll learn that such a category no longer exists – if it ever did. Ang Lee is the director for this take on the best-selling book which tells the story of Pi, the esoteric son of an Indian zoo owner. When the family and animals all board a ship for a new life in Canada and encounter a vicious storm, Pi finds himself in a life-boat with only a handful of surviving zoo animals for company – including Roger Parker, the Bengal tiger. So unfolds a story of the fantastic adventures and the mundane business of survival at sea, as told in flashback by an adult Pi to a Canadian author who’d been told that Pi’s story would free him from writer’s block. As the tale begins, Pi tells him that it won’t merely enable him to write again; it will make him believe in God.
Ang Lee is a great choice to direct this sort of film – since the dazzling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he’s been a master of using technology to further a story without dominating it. That’s essential here, and the 3D CGI with which the film is laden is breathtaking, beautiful and in service of the story as opposed to drawing attention to itself. Personally I’m not sure how much benefit there is to it being in 3D – but that’s personal taste.
The director is a good choice for another reason. Most of his films have at some level been about issues of identity and self-discovery. Whether it’s Lust, Caution or Brokeback Mountain or the career low-point Hulk, his dramas are about people finding out who they really are. This story couldn’t flag that theme much more obviously; as a schoolboy Pi takes his identity in his own hands by shortening his name to escape playground mockery; the tiger’s name is a result of an administrative confusion with the name of his captor. So the story continues, the quest for survival revealing in Pi things he didn’t realise about himself – confronted with hunger, thirst and the need to simply exist he finds a sense of himself which had previously eluded him. The film is at its strongest on this and the simple act of story-telling; it’s an engaging, charming, story where the necessary suspension of disbelief is aided by the deft visual effects.
Where the film has more trouble is similar to the book itself – when it tries to move towards some sort of spiritual enlightenment. Pi describes himself as a Hindu, Christian and a Moslem – falling back on the maxim that all faiths have some truth in them and are different pathways to the same god. It sounds appealing, but what it really means is that the film’s spirituality – like Pi’s – is a mish-mash of lots of things which in reality ends up being a watery soup of feel-good wisdom with little taste. That’s not to say such a world-view doesn’t have power to help in some circumstances – people of all religions and none have been sustained through all sorts of horrendous experiences by all sorts of belief systems. The weakness comes through the film’s ending – effectively asking the viewer to decide if what has gone before is true or if another version is closer to reality. It’s true that one version may be more appealing – but if it’s not true, it’s meaningless. Similarly it’s appealing to suggest all religions are ultimately the same; but that doesn’t do justice to one religion claiming that God has a Son who’s lived and died and been raised back to life as a human; other religions consider it abhorrent to suggest that God’s incarnation could be killed. There’s no middle ground there, no matter how tempting it is. It’ll get you so far, but ultimately it doesn’t do justice to any of the parts you’re cherry-picking from. The film’s spiritual quest is as ultimately satisfying as a cappuccino which is all froth and no espresso or water. Looks good, but does nothing.
See it, but stay with the story. Life of Pi is an engaging and entertaining piece of story-telling; but it’s no guidebook for life.
I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com