When do you welcome a movie into your pantheon of stupendous achievements in cinema? At what point do you reject a movie as complete and utter bullshit? I've always felt it's best not to judge too quickly either way, as a film can always surprise you by taking an unexpected turn that makes you rethink the time leading up to it. This is the experience of watching Ang Lee's Life of Pi, a film that almost succeeds as an engrossing story until the thing goes off the rails and you realize what you're really watching.
Based on Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi is the story of Pisine "Pi" Patel, an Indian man who begins life in a Wes Anderson film. Named after a French pool, he's taught to swim by a mustachioed Indian strongman and, once he starts school, recites as many digits of pi that he can to ensure that his peers no longer call him "Pissing." The relevant bit is that, raised Hindu, he also takes on Christianity and Islam to get a multifaceted view of god and believes that animals have souls like us, much to the chagrin of his atheistic zoo owner of a father, who goes as far as forcing him to watch as a helpless animal is mauled and devoured by their zoo's Bengal tiger, Richard Parker — named so due to a clerical error.
Soon, as an older boy, Pi's father decides to uproot his family and their animals from their Indian town of Pondicherry to start a new life in Canada. Their ship sails through a terrible storm in the middle of the ocean, and the result is one of the most intense and thrilling shipwreck scenes ever put to film, as waves jostle the ship, wind and rain buffet Pi as he struggles to maintain grip on one of the lifeboats and zebras swim for dear life through the flooded bowels of the ship. In mere minutes the sequence threatens to top the entire second half of Titanic for harrowing ocean-related catastrophe. Call it We Drowned a Zoo.
Once the storm clears, we reach the meat of the movie as Pi's lifeboat transforms into a miniature Noah's Ark with the presence of an orangutan, an injured zebra, an overzealous hyena and — oh fuck — Richard Parker the tiger. Quickly, what at first promises to be a fun animal adventure charts a course for Bummerville, leaving Pi and the tiger as the only survivors. I know, I know hanging out on a boat with vaguely personified animals is not what the book is about, but if you start to promise me a movie about a rag-tag animal crew surviving in the middle of the ocean and immediately rip that away from me, I get a little annoyed, especially if sometime later you present your main character with an opportunity to let the tiger drown but instead have him figure out a way to get him back in the boat*.
Either way, Ang Lee was probably the best choice to direct an adaptation of Life of Pi. Nature is a constant presence in Lee's films — especially when human nature is put at odds with nature itself. It's a constant presence in films like Hulk (shut up it's great) and Brokeback Mountain, which are both intensely emotional stories. Life of Pi takes that idea and cranks it up to deafening levels as Pi finds himself in a desperate situation facing pure nature as only Werner Herzog could appreciate — the uncaring, violent natural predator. Call it, Aguerre, the Wrath of Pi.
The entire section of the movie with the lifeboat and the tiger makes for incredible filmmaking and storytelling. Once you get past his blown opportunity to kill the damn thing, the weird interaction between Pi and Richard Parker is quite compelling as we watch a man try to live with a beast in a very extreme situation. It's also an amazing film to look at as Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda — DP of such beautiful but empty films as Tron: Legacy and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — create striking visuals and amazing colors all over the place. It's also stunningly shot in 3D, and while post-production 3D conversion is often cheap and useless, I maintain that it can be a really great tool for movies actually shot in 3D.
So far, I've made it sound like I really like the film. Let me clarify — overall, I enjoyed those parts. However, Lee and screenwriter David Magee unravel all that goodwill by sticking to the novel's framing device — an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) is recounting his story to a novelist (Rafe Spall**), who may or may not be Martel himself and who was told that Pi had a story that "would make you believe in God." These scenes may have worked in the novel, but in the film they grind the narrative momentum to a screeching halt in order to explain obvious things to the audience. One time we cut to the present so the author can sum up the film thus far, but this device gets especially egregious once the film's big twist *** happens and Spall's character straight up explains its meaning, even though anyone with a brain could interpret it. At that point I literally took off my 3D-glasses in disbelief and wondered what happened to the visually arresting movie I was looking at.
There's a great film somewhere in Life of Pi, a strange, psychedelic one-man odyssey where survivalism meets hallucination (HINT: There's an amazing scene where Pi finds what he eventually deems a "carnivorous island") and viewers are left to figure it out for themselves. Lee seems most engaged when trying to grasp at that story, but Martel's source material is so caught up in handwringing about human secularism and religion and also explaining what that handwringing is all about that nobody's allowed to have any fun or even think about what the film means on their own. It's like being in hippie detention.
Frankly, I don't give a fuck about what Life of Pi is trying to convey about the nature of religion or how you can train a tiger to keep away from you instead of letting Poseidon murder it. That said, I think it's a must-see film, especially in a nice theatre with a big-ass screen and 3D glasses uncomfortably resting on your face. It's the best opportunity to use the adjective "sumptuous" that I've seen all year, but then again I didn't see The Master in 70mm so maybe I'm wrong about that.
Either way, it's kind of bullshit.
*I know, I'm probably talking out of turn as an agnostic Westerner and I know Pi views all creatures as having souls, but hey — I'm a vegetarian who feels bad when he kills flies in his apartment, and in my gut I know I would have let that tiger drown with a glee reserved for Three Six Mafia at the Oscars.
**Spall's character was originally played by Toby Maguire, but Lee chose to reshoot those scenes with Spall because he thought having Maguire appear in a film with an international cast of mostly unrecognizable actors would be distracting. Spall is cosmically fortuitous casting considering his role in Prometheus.
he twist made me laugh, and not in the "ho ho ha ha, you got me there!" kind of way, but in the "You gotta be fucking kidding me" way. This is basically an extended lecture. It's a clever way to show why otherwise sensible, thinking people buy into religion, but as someone who's into the fantastic and seeing weird stuff, I have an annoyance for stories where the fantasy is revealed to be a lie or hallucination all along. Which means that movies like Franklyn and Big Fish and even The Fisher King seriously turn me off.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.