LIFE OF PI Review: Lessons Learned
The release of films in 3D, and the 3D-conversion of films shot in the traditional 2D format, have been all the rage these last couple of years. I have been resistant to embrace the move to this format for several reasons, all of which I wrote about in my Sunday Morning on Film column for Filmoria in April, 2012.
And since that time, my position has only been been reinforced by the fact that the couple of 3D movies I have seen (at the behest of my children) have left me unimpressed with the effect, and that every 2D movie I have seen (that has had a 3D sibling release) has been perfectly entertaining in the 2D presentation and has never left me wanting more.
Damn. You. Studios.
With their endless and often unnecessary releases of films in non-traditional formats (which, honestly, give the appearance of being nothing more than desperate attempts at grabbing more cash), the studios have conditioned me not only to avoid films in the 3D format, but to go out of my way in doing so. Which is what happened to me recently. I had a chance to see Ang Lee‘s Life of Pi in 3D, but because of what I have been used to with other 3D releases, I instead chose the 2D screening. Boy, did I learn that I shouldn’t make such assumptions. I should have seen this film in 3D, and if you haven’t yet, you should too.
Damn. You. Studios.
Life of Pi is a tale told in flashback by the title character, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan). When we are introduced to him, he is a middle-aged Indian living in Canada who is meeting with a writer (Rafe Spall) who is interested in his life story.
Pi covers three key areas of his boyhood before his adventure begins. The first is the origin of the name “Pi.” It is short for something else, and his reason for shortening it to Pi is rather funny, and not what you might expect. The second is his fascination with various religions, specifically Hindi, Islam, and Christianity, with a particular interest in God’s plan to sacrifice His son, Jesus Christ. Ultimately, Pi adheres to parts of all three religions. This drives his father (Adil Hussain) crazy, but Pi’s defense is that he “… just wants to love God.” It seems that doing so across three faiths is a good way to cover his bases. The third highlight of his life is the source of the transition of the story from childhood memories to high seas survival.
Pi’s parents had owned the zoo in their town since Pi was young. When his father loses funding to keep the zoo running, he decides to sell the animals to interested buyers in Canada. With the zoo no longer a part of their lives, Pi’s father decides that the whole family will move to Canada and start a new life. They book passage on a freighter that will take them and their menagerie from India to Canada.
While on the freighter, they have a bad encounter with a very mean cook (Gerard Depardieu), who speaks disrespectfully to Pi’s mother (Sabu) while serving dinner. But that encounter wouldn’t have the opportunity to carryover – or be mended – at breakfast. In the middle of the night, Pi (played at age 16 by Suraj Sharma) is awakened by a loud boom. When he goes topside to see what is happening, he opens the hatch to find the ship is in the heart of a torrential storm. Pi is mesmerized and thrilled by the power of nature that God displays, but when the ship begins to capsize, members of the crew grab Pi and throw him aboard a lifeboat. The only other living things to survive, and who find themselves aboard that lifeboat, are a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a fierce bengal tiger named Richard Parker (and how the tiger got that name provides another moment of levity in film). Pi must survive being adrift in the Pacific with no one to help him and four wild animals sharing a very cramped space.
Before long, the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, with the tiger killing the hyena. Once that happens, it’s Pi and Richard Parker alone at sea.
Even early in the film, when the older Pi is reminiscing about his uncle and swimming pools (trust me), it’s clear that director Ang Lee is aching to put on a water-centric visual display. He does not disappoint. From the simplicity of Pi’s uncle’s swims to the majesty of a breeching whale to the glorious bioluminescence of sea life during the calm of night, Lee fills every inch of the screen with rich, sumptuous color … so much so that the color of real life around you – on the clothes on the people seated in the theater and the cars in the parking lot and the signs on the drive home – seem dull and flat and devoid of life.
Still, for all of the beauty that Lee captures, he also shows nature’s darker side, too. The fury with which the freighter is ultimately toppled, as well as the relentlessness of a subsequent storm that Pi and Richard Parker must survive while in the lifeboat, are powerfully exhibited, yet never have that disaster film feel of being too loud or too over-the-top.
And perhaps Lee’s greatest visual feat throughout the film is his use of water as a reflective surface. In several scenes, the sky reflects perfectly against the still water, giving the effect that Pi and the tiger and the boat are actually floating in the clouds instead of floating in the water. Still shots are works of art.
SPOILER ALERT – I REVEAL THE END HERE
About that tiger … and the zebra … and the hyena … and the orangutan. They didn’t exist on the lifeboat. They were all characters in something of a parable. It’s not that the shipwreck and the 227 days stranded at sea didn’t happen to Pi; it all did. It’s that the hyena was the dreadful chef, and the chef killed a sailor (the zebra) as well as Pi’s mother (the orangutan). Once that happened, Pi could take no more and he, as the tiger, killed the chef.
This leaves me torn. The story was spectacular, but as I think about it, it was spectacular for me, the filmgoer. In the context of the film itself, as Pi’s story, his reason for spinning the yarn not only to the writer, but to the Japanese owners of the sunken freighter who questioned him after he washed ashore, was simply that the story was better with the animals as opposed to with the people, as opposed to with what actually happened. I understand that, as a boy, Pi was fascinated with Christ, and that the temptation to tell his story the way Christ might have, as a parable, would be great. But Christ’s parables were meant as lessons, not just stories. Christ used his storytelling as a method of teaching. The only thing Pi taught us was that he has incredible survival skills … and is one hell of a storyteller.
Out of five stars …