Year of Release: 2012 Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Suraji Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, and Gerard Depardieu.
I know that I will be in the minority on this, but here is my opinion of a deeply flawed film. As a disclaimer, the film managed to push all the buttons that most irritate me.
“When people cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” – G. K. Chesterton. Conversely, when people believe in anything, even things that contradict one another, they ultimately believe in nothing. This is the problem at the heart of Ang Lee’s new film, Life of Pi, and from my understanding, the book on which it is based.
As a young boy Pi is interested in all religions, and he maintains that interest throughout his entire life. As an adult Pi describes himself as a Catholic Hindu who is also a Muslim who practices Judaism. There is nothing wrong with being interested in many different religions; however, Pi wants to adhere to them all simultaneously: Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, denying that any of them have flaws or contradict one another. He takes what he likes from each religion and ignores the rest. This attitude completely undermines the point of religion; at the most basic level, any religion is a belief system that is meant to help orient mankind towards a final goal and establish a relationship between him and God (or gods). If one only follows the parts of religions that he likes, while ignoring the unpleasant parts, he is serving only himself and destroying any relationship between himself and the spiritual.
Pi’s father, an atheist, warns Pi when he is a young boy that if he believes in everything he will ultimately believe in nothing. He tells his son that it would be best to pick one belief system and practice only that one so he believes in something and has a defining core principle. The film tediously attempts to prove Pi’s father wrong while also painting faith and reason as mutually opposed to each other.
The film does encourage abandoning reason in spiritual matters, because it portrays the world in too bleak a light. Towards the end of the film, Pi tells another character two stories, both of which attempt to offer an explanation for a tragic event. The first one is supernatural, mystical, optimistic, and (supposedly) inspiring. The second is dark, disgusting, violent, completely natural, and filled with despair. When Pi’s listener, an atheist, points out that the first story is more hope filled and a better story, Pi responds that it is the same way with God. Religion solely offers another more positive explanation for the events of life. It is relegated to emotions that make its practitioners feel good.
I would not want to believe in a god as lame as the god described in this film. This god has no power or control over the events of the world. All that belief in him does is give one a warm, fuzzy feeling inside that makes tragedy seem slightly more bearable, because sooner or later he will somehow make things better. (Even though he has no power or presence in the first place and his edicts are completely contradictory.) When Pi’s listener hear Pi’s explanation for religion, his atheism melts away and tears well up in his eyes. I expect this was the point when the filmmakers wanted the audience to be reaching for tissues; I wanted to be reaching for a barf bag.
The film is so busy trying to be about big important questions that it noticeably neglects the how of filmmaking. There is no engaging story, no empathetic character, and no consistent mood or atmosphere. Admittedly, films do not have to tell a traditional linear story; Tree of Life was an incredible film. A film can provide a glimpse of a world in which there are no empathetic characters; I, for one, think Chicago is a excellent portrayal of the tragedy of crime in prohibition era Chicago. For its many flaws, Avatar managed to create a consistent pace and atmosphere with visual effects that were truly stunning.
Life of Pi has a meandering episodic plot where one event follows another without any sense of progression or conflict. At the beginning of the film there is an anecdote unrelated to the rest of the film concerning Pi’s name; the character who inspired his name is mentioned briefly in this story and then does not appear for the remainder of the film. After the shipwreck, there are many scenes between Pi and the tiger, none of which have any sense of urgency. On an exotic island a new threat suddenly arises, but quickly disappears. None of this managed to generate any interest or concern about the characters.
The only character who has enough screen time to make any impression on the audience is Pi, and he is foolish enough to isolate viewers from caring about him. While isolated on a boat with a tiger who has tried to kill him multiple times, he manages to get onto the boat when the tiger had jumped off. Instead of leaving the tiger stranded on the side of the boat, he helps it back on board because he cannot bring himself to kill it. There were parts where I was beginning to hope that the tiger would kill him so the frustrating story could end.
The film does not even make impressive or remarkable use of its 3D technology, and that is what irritated me most. (There were previews before the film that blew it away regarding special effects.) To be fair, there were some sequences which were technically stunning, but these were few and far between and mostly shown in trailers for the film. The blue whale, the storm, and of course the purely CGI tiger were all impressive achievements. However, for many scenes, especially close distance shots, the viewer does not need to wear the glasses. The shot is perfectly clear without them, and all the glasses do is make the screen look dark and dull. There is one striking 3D scene which briefly overcomes the film’s absurdity. Pi and the tiger stare over the side of the boat and watch a fight between a sperm whale and a giant squid. The creatures then dissolve into other creatures, such as a giraffe, a turtle, a lion, to show the interconnectedness between all living things.
In this two hour movie I glanced at my watch six times and nearly stood up to leave twice. At one point I noticed a random glaring flaw: Pi’s lack of facial hair. After months at sea, Pi was completely clean shaven, even though the film did show substantial hair underneath his armpits, which would imply he was old enough to grow a beard. I could have overlooked the new age anti-religion spiritualism and praised artistic achievements, but the film’s pretentious boredom made it seem that lame relativistic spiritual themes were the main point and everything else was secondary. I imagine that many people will highly enjoy Life of Pi; it has impressive camera work, some decent use of 3D, and the sentimentality will probably touch most viewers. I even respect others who can find a vague metaphor for the importance of faith in the film. But for me it was “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Content Advisory: Mild crass humor, some scenes of peril, and much new age relativism. MPAA rating: PG
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: D-