Life of Pi is an encouraging and optimistic tale about human survival and the struggle to battle ones inner demons. Visually dazzling and filled with great tension, Ang Lee's latest does a lot of things right in its quest to steady the soul. Its themes and its overall narrative, however, are purposefully deceptive, which leaves a lot of the film rather muddled and lost in its own message. A stunning testament to the human spirit and to love, and in the end, the journey one man takes to find himself and to find God. It is too bad that Lee's presentation comes off as a little overwrought. Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
Irrfan Khan stars in the film as Pi, who recounts the tale of his life to a writer (Rafe Spall). He was the son of a zookeeper and his wife, living in India. Through some happenstance, the family decides to move to Canada, taking the animals with them, which they plan on selling once they arrive in order to financially establish themselves. En route, the Japanese cargo ship sinks, the animals escape, and Pi finds himself stranded alone on a lifeboat with a few of them.
The bulk of the narrative revolves around a younger Pi (Suraj Sharma in a fantastic performance) and his attempts to survive stranded at sea with an adult bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The two share a fantastic voyage across the sea in which Pi learns about courage and finds the strength to survive, often out of fearing for his own life. However, the narrative often seems a touch too fantastic and out of touch with reality- a fact given a great deal of attention since the older Pi prefaces the story with a warning about how fantastic it is.
As a young boy, Pi spent a great deal of time searching for himself through faith- proclaiming himself to be a Hindu, Christian, and a Muslim simultaneously. His father (Adil Hussain) tells him that one who believes in all things at once really believes in nothing at all, and urges him to choose a path. He asks him to listen to reason (one could argue, a faith all its own). Life of Pi is, at its core, a metaphor for religion, but not one specific religion, and ultimately argues there is no one path to peace and spirituality, to faith, love, and wisdom. It instead marries all of the ideas together, showing that there is no one true path. Science, reason, faith, and religion, all different paths leading to the same destination.
Life of Pi asks whether the journey is more important than the destination, and the film clearly argues that the former is more important; at the end, the elder Pi recalls telling two stories. In both stories, his ship sinks, his family dies, and he survives. Yet he asks which is the better story; the writer responds, "the one with the tiger." With this, the elder Pi replies, "and so it goes with God." Life of Pi, then, places upon the viewer that the destination- finding God- is always the same, but that each must find the best way.
In revealing his narrator as unreliable, Lee unfortunately detracts from the themes that he is trying to present. It would have been Lee's masterstroke had he simply let the film tell this story; his attempts at selling his point of view to the audience are weakened by placing doubt in the mind of the viewer. The film makes the point he wants it to without the ham-fisted exposition, and it forces the vigilant viewer to ever question the journey. Without the needless revelation- by cutting out anything regarding the adult Pi until the end of the film- it would have been absolutely magnificent. As it stands now, it is just one flaw too many in a film that spends half its run time on a boat with a man and a tiger, which is devoid of tension since the audience knows how it ends.
In the end, take away from Life of Pi the thematic questions it raises and the points it makes, but don't expect it to unfold naturally. Despite all of the nature, the serenity, and the unpredictability of the setting of the film, it has a simplistic, mechanical feel that is too inorganic by comparison. Three and a half out of Five stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
If you haven't, check out the international trailer for Life of Pi, which you'll note focuses on only the story of the younger Pi being lost at sea. Too bad the film doesn't follow suit. If you're a fan of my reviews please subscribe to them and share them; your support means everything to me! You can also become a fanboy/girl and follow me on Twitter or book my face.