After You've seen Life of Pi, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special with Dan Engber and Dana Stevens.
Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s adaptation of the best-selling 2001 novel by Yann Martel, might be a good movie to see stoned—or maybe it’s just one that makes you feel as though you already are stoned, floating along on a sea of hyper-crisp 3-D images and evanescent spiritual insights. I suppose it’s suitable that Life of Pi would be a movie that sets its viewers mentally adrift in this way, since it’s about someone who’s literally adrift: A young Indian man named Pi who survives a shipwreck, only to find himself stranded in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger.
Why was a tiger crossing the ocean the first place? Well, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain), the owner of a zoo in Pondicherry, has decided to emigrate with his animals, wife, and two young sons to start a new life in Canada. After a stiff frame-story setup in which a French-Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) sits down for an interview with the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan), there’s an extended whimsical flashback to Pi’s childhood in India. As a dreamy grammar-school misfit (played by Ayush Tandon), he annoys his modern-minded atheist dad by incorporating Christian and Muslim prayer into his daily rituals. But later, in his teen years (as played by Suraj Sharma), Pi’s spiritual bent will serve him well. If you’re going to spend months alone in a lifeboat with a giant carnivorous jungle cat, you’d better know how to pray in several languages.
The long middle section—the movie’s strongest stretch— plays like a hallucinogenic mashup of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, the reality show I Shouldn’t Be Alive, and a soothing promotional video that might play on a loop in the waiting room of a very fancy Ayurvedic spa. Many scenes involving the logistics of Pi’s struggle for survival on the raft aim for conventional verisimilitude and suspense—and achieve a surprising degree of both, given that the tiger is a CGI creation and the protagonist’s survival is already assured. But now and again Lee will veer off on lush imagistic tangents, his camera plunging to explore luminescent jellies beneath the ocean’s surface or rising into the heavens to look down on boy and tiger from a chilly stars’-eye-view.
There’s something admirable about Lee’s commitment to lavishing sheer visual beauty on the viewer. Like his God-besotted hero, the director seems passionately in love with the natural world, even as he renders it with a high degree of technical artifice. The tiger is an extraordinarily convincing (and refreshingly unanthropomorphized) digital creation, the ocean water resembles thick molten glass, and the sky, often shown in unnatural shades of peach, gold, and celadon, has a palpable depth, as if the movie were being projected inside a transparent cube. Lee doesn’t do anything especially new with 3-D, and he’s not above having characters poke or throw objects at the lens in the medium’s oldest “hey, looky here!” gambit. But Life of Pi’s sophisticated use of the technology recalls Avatar’s rather than, say, Clash of the Titans’. The image is remarkably bright, clear, and (to use the word James Cameron’s publicists seem to have implanted in all our brains with a chip) “immersive”—even if what we’re being immersed in feels at times like a vat of warm caramel.
For Life of Pi’s theology is as gauzy as its images are sharp. Everything happens for a reason in this best of all possible worlds, it seems—unless that world is a godless arena of dog-eat-dog carnage, which is also a distinct possibility. The story of the boy and the tiger in a boat wants to be both a magic-realist fable and a tense survival adventure, two modes of storytelling that undercut and sometimes undo one another. If this is all some symbolic parable about the soul’s struggle with itself, why bother to invest in the practical questions of how Pi will find fresh water or keep his food supply dry? If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?
In the disappointingly tiger-free last 20 minutes we hear Pi recount his incredible story, first to investigators at a Japanese shipping company shortly after his rescue and later, as an adult, to that wide-eyed French-Canadian novelist we had completely forgotten was sitting in Pi’s living room. The movie’s energy peters out in a series of book-club conversations about divine will, the power of storytelling, and the resilience of the human spirit. The ending’s pious dullness is enough to make you wish you were back on that lifeboat, where the most pressing questions weren’t spiritual but gastronomic: What’s on the menu for lunch, and what can I do to make sure it isn’t me?