Nov 30 2012
Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Life of Pi
The film ‘Life of Pi’ is directed by Ang Lee and is based on the award-winning, best-selling 2001 book of the same name by Yann Martel about an Indian teenager named Pi who spends 227 days stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. That’s pretty much the whole story, and since it’s being told in flashback by an adult Pi, you know that Pi survives. But Pi’s journey is supposedly more than just a tale of survival, since, as Pi tells an inquisitive writer, it’s a story that will make you believe in God. That would be quite an accomplishment since first, I don’t believe in God, and second, ‘Life of Pi’ strikes me as a story that doesn’t prove the existence of God, but actually argues the exact opposite.
Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi who now lives in Canada with his family and is telling his story to a struggling writer, played by Rafe Spall. Pi tells the writer about his childhood growing up in Pondicherry, India, where he became interested in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and his dad owned a zoo, which included a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi’s dad decides to move the family and sell off the zoo’s animals, but the ship they’re taking to Canada sinks in a storm, leaving a teenage Pi (played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with several animals, including Richard Parker.
Thus begins a tale of survival, with Pi trying to figure out how to coexist with Richard Parker while attempting to keep both of them alive through rough seas, starvation, dehydration, encounters with marine life, and perhaps a bit of magic realism. All this is done with beautiful computer-generated 3D imagery, including state-of-the-art technology melding real and CG tigers that I found, for the most part, to be totally believable.
With ‘Life of Pi’’s promises of spiritual discovery, its main character being a half-naked Indian boy who hangs out with a tiger, the fact that the book’s author is a white Canadian man, and its popularity amongst western New Age readers, one might expect ‘Life of Pi’ to traffic in the sort of orientalist fetishism of eastern religions that has become fashionable along with yoga and meditation. But for better and worse, ‘Life of Pi’ isn’t that specific, since with just a few adjustments, it seems like Pi and his family could come from any country with zoos.
However, this lack of specificity complicates the film’s central theme that Pi’s story is one that will make you believe in God. ‘Life of Pi’ never digs in to the truly messy aspects of religion, like the contradictions between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam that would make it hard for Pi to harmoniously believe in all three. Are the gods of these religions supposed to be the same one, and why would he sink a boat full of innocent people and animals? Isn’t the natural beauty Pi witnesses while at sea, like a school of flying fish and blooms of bioluminescent algae, better explained by science and evolution than the creative whims of a magic sky monster? And if mass drownings don’t complicate the notion of a benevolent, unifying God, there’s a twist near the end that if anything, would confirm that if there is a God in control, he’s a cruel, sadistic jerk.
Maybe the book of ‘Life of Pi’ does a better job of hitting the right faith buttons, and this isn’t to say that ‘Life of Pi’ is even a bad movie. It’s visually interesting to watch, the performances are good, I never knew what would happen next (other than Pi surviving), and I think it’s great that a major studio threw a big budget behind a movie with a weird story like this with no major stars. But in the end, ‘Life of Pi’ is more about the nuts and bolts of a teenager surviving at sea and bonding with a tiger than a spiritual quest that asks hard questions about the wisdom, will, and existence of God and why he seems to enjoy inflicting so much suffering and death on unoffending humans. In the end, ‘Life of Pi’ not only doesn’t answer any of religion’s big questions, it doesn’t even ask them.
‘Life of Pi’ is rated PG and is in theaters now.