Q: Where does a full-grown Bengal tiger sit?
A: Anywhere it wants.
Here’s a film that I knew absolutely nothing about going in. I hadn’t read the book, I didn’t know a thing more than the basics about the premise, and I was woefully unfamiliar with the work of director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon excluded). All I knew of this movie was the trailer. Frankly, that was enough to tell me that I had to see this movie. And when I heard that it came with a 3D option, my ticket was sold then and there.
Sure enough, I’m happy to report that Life of Pi absolutely lives up to its promise as a movie with jaw-dropping spectacle. However, I’m significantly less happy to report that “fails to stick the landing” doesn’t adequately describe the narrative. I think it would be more accurate to say that the narrative runs right up the finish line, then stops just before crossing to break its own kneecaps with a ball-peen hammer.
As much as I’d like to discuss the ending straight away, it’s probably best to start at the beginning. As the title implies, this film tells the story of Pi Patel, a Pondicherry native played by no less than four actors. Ranging from youngest to oldest, they are Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma, and Irrfan Khan. Of the four, the only one who didn’t make his debut in this picture is Khan, a veteran character actor. But I digress.
Contrary to what you might believe, Pi was not named after a mathematical number. That was simply a nickname he took for himself. His full given name is actually “Piscine Molitor,” which means that he was named after a swimming pool in France. This makes a lot more sense in context, trust me.
Anyway, we first meet Pi as an adult (Khan) living in Canada. He’s meeting with an unnamed Writer (Rafe Spall) who’s interested in hearing Pi’s story and writing a book about it. These interviews work as a framing device for the film, thus making the Writer our audience surrogate. However, it’s equally possible that Spall’s character is a stand-in for Yann Martel, the Canadian author who wrote the film’s source text. Not that it matters, of course.
The first act tells the story of Pi’s childhood, which deals heavily in one of the film’s main themes: Faith. See, Pi is an endlessly curious child, and it turns out that religions interest him greatly. The boy more or less makes a hobby out of collecting religions, ardently practicing Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and any other religion he comes across. Pi doesn’t even see any contradiction in holding so many different beliefs at once: To him, all the different gods are just different facets of the same Supreme Being.
Countering this is Pi’s father (Santosh Patel, played by Adil Hussain), a man who firmly believes in logic and science. However, that’s not to say he’s a radical atheist who ardently opposes Pi’s experimentation. The man truly loves his son and they’d both be perfectly fine agreeing to disagree on matters of spirituality. That said, Santosh is concerned that his son might be so gullible as to believe anything he hears. If Pi is going to believe in all religions equally, goes the argument, he’d be no better off than if he believed in no religion at all. It’s hard to argue with that logic, and his nuanced stance is a very interesting one.
I should also note that Pi’s mother (Gita Patel, played by some Indian actress known only as “Tabu”) more or less acts as the moderator between them. She makes the argument that science is ideal for exploring the world around us, but religion is the only way to explore the world inside us.
Something else to know about Pi’s parents is that they run a zoo. As such, Pi learns at an early age about animals, humans, and their respective places on the food chain.These lessons are often quite graphic in nature, though the film cuts away when the time comes to actually show them.
Skip ahead to the end of the first act. At this point, Pi is played by Suraj Sharma, who continues to play the character through most of the film’s running time. This is also the point when Pi’s family decides that recent political changes in India have made their status quo untenable. Therefore, they book a Japanese freighter to carry the family and their zoo animals to North America. Once there, they’ll sell the animals and use the money to start a new life in Canada.
It’s a good plan and it goes well enough at first. But then the shipwreck happens.
Just over the Mariana Trench, the freighter gets sunk by a massive storm. The shipwreck is so catastrophic that Pi is somehow the only human survivor. Even worse, he has to share a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a rat, and a hyena who somehow made it onto the lifeboat with him. Then again, the animals don’t really matter all that much: They very quickly end up as food for Richard Parker.
Who’s Richard Parker, you ask? Well, he’s the adult Bengal tiger who also made it aboard the lifeboat. The name was due to a clerical error, you see.
Anyway, the lifeboat was designed and stocked for thirty people, so supplies aren’t a problem for the short-term. No, the main problem is that the supplies are being guarded by an angry goddamned tiger. Oh, and also the sharks. Did I mention the sharks?
As you might expect, the bulk of the film focuses on the strained and complicated relationship between Pi and Richard Parker as they struggle to survive until rescue. We see Pi attempt a number of inventive ways to keep on living, most of which take place on the clever satellite raft that he built to put some distance between him and the tiger. Speaking of which, we also see Pi attempt all manner of ways to tame, placate, and/or train Richard Parker. Some of them go well, others fail in humorous ways, and others fail in disastrous ways. Even worse, Pi takes measures that seem smart enough in the short term, only to prove utterly disastrous in the long run.
Yet as strange as it may sound, the relationship between the two isn’t completely antagonistic. For one thing, Pi sees Richard Parker as a constant reminder of his own mortality. As such, overcoming the tiger comes to symbolize overcoming his own fears. Moreover, even if Richard Parker isn’t very gracious about the food and care provided to him, caring for him still provides Pi with some measure of emotional fulfilment and mental stimulation. It staves off boredom, which can be every bit as fatal as thirst or starvation in the middle of nowhere.
Yes, I realize that two characters learning to get along after being forced together is hardly a new story. It isn’t even new in the context of learning how to survive together while stranded in the open wilderness. That said, making the other character a fierce carnivore — debatably void of any humanity to reason with — is a wonderful twist on the old story. Plus, being stuck with a tiger on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean? Seriously, how many times have we heard that story before?
There’s a lot of creativity to be found in this movie, particularly in the visuals. No words could do justice to how beautiful this film is. From start to finish, the camerawork is superb. The editing is wonderful. The visual effects are stunning. The colors are mesmerizing. The 3D effects are jaw-dropping. Of course, it also helps that the screenplay is decent and all of the actors turn in fine work. Major kudos are due to Sharma, who carries this movie with incredible skill.
But then the second act ends and things start going downhill. I’m loathe to spoil exactly what happens, but suffice to say that there’s a failed rescue attempt, even though there’s no earthly reason why it shouldn’t have succeeded. But oh, that was just a warm-up for the bullshit to come.
See, this is a movie about faith in God. This movie is about a character whose faith is severely tested in an awful trial by water. Every time something awful happens to him, the protagonist can only scream to the heavens and ask for God’s help. Sometimes, in such a film, God doesn’t seem to answer (see: The Grey). More often, however, there comes a time when God does indeed intervene. That said, the intervention must be done very carefully. It’s far too easy to make the act of God seem like… well, a deus ex machina. If God reaches down to help our protagonist, it can’t be done in a way that smacks of contrived, lazy storytelling.
Alas, it seems the filmmakers didn’t get that particular memo. Instead, the filmmakers granted Pi one of the laziest, most contrived, most inexplicably convenient deus ex machinas I’ve ever borne witness to. Even by the film’s own admission, the perfectly and improbably-suited form of Pi’s relief makes absolutely no fucking sense.
Yet the film seems to imply that it’s all okay: Finding such help was an act of God and a reward for Pi’s faith. Call it such if you want, but I call that the very definition of a deus ex machina.
Now, I realize that this issue may very well divide audiences. One could make the argument, for example, that it isn’t really any more silly than the flying fish, the conveniently placed whale, or any of the other fantastic things witnessed in this film. I would argue… well, YES IT IS. I can’t go any deeper into the point without spoiling things, but it’s so much harder to believe than anything else in the film.
This is specifically because the movie maintains a relatively anchored reality through its entire running time. Sure, it ventured slightly into the fantastic now and then, but it never really tipped over into the totally ludicrous until that very moment, and the film suffers greatly for it. Hell, even the film itself admits that the event was totally ridiculous.
But oh, that isn’t even getting started on the coup de grace. See, if you don’t like that version of events, the film implies that there’s another, more logical account of what happened. This version of the story is told to us by way of an interminable monologue, though I can’t honestly say I listened to a word of it. There are many reasons why, but here’s a big one: “Show, don’t tell.”
More importantly, I’m offered a choice between two options that both suck. Either the story ends in an improbably convenient way that breaks all suspension of disbelief, or I just wasted two hours listening to a narrator lie about his experiences. Either way, this guy is a fucking awful storyteller.
What makes it even worse is that when the choice is put to the Writer (who, I’ll remind you, is supposed to be representing us), he chooses the story with the tiger. You know why? “It’s the better story.” That’s the exact quotation. He chooses that one because it’s the more fantastic version of events, that’s it. Never mind which one is actually true, and never mind which one has more to say about faith, God, mortality, or any number of other themes. The story with the tiger must be how it really went down because it’s more entertaining that way. Horseshit.
Furthermore, I should point out that the two stories are more or less the same, except that one is stripped of the more fantastic elements and swaps out all the animals for fellow survivors. In other words, the film seems to think that the story with the animals is inherently more entertaining. Again, I call bullshit. It’s entirely possible to make a great film about people giving into their animal natures as they struggle to survive away from civilization (again, see The Grey).
To sum up, this movie spends 90 breathtaking minutes to examine faith, mortality, and the uneasy cohabitation of man with nature, only to flush it all away with a poorly delivered ambiguity that effectively renders its own themes irrelevant. I can’t begin to imagine why the narrator didn’t just tell us the story with the tiger and say “It is what it is, so believe it or don’t.”
It’s ultimately the ending that turns Life of Pi from an extraordinary film to a frustrating one. I so badly wish that I could recommend this film for its awe-inspiring visuals and its fantastic performances, but I just can’t get around that horrible ending. Even so, I know that there are many out there who will take the preceding ninety minutes over the final thirty, and there will be some who can find meaning in the ending. I sincerely wish them well.
So here’s my suggestion: Go out and see Life of Pi on the big screen, and take the 3D option. Then, when Pi’s rescue attempt fails at the 90-minute mark, leave the theater and make up your own ending. That’s basically what the film will ask you to do anyway.