Scientific instrumentation deployed in service to pernicious myths, the rational used to prop up the irrational: some would call that a grievous slight against the human mind; the stunting of a species using its own genius. You can just call it a movie if you like, assuming you can see through the magnificent artifice of Ang Lee’s allegorical Russian doll.
Do we need a movie like Life of Pi in a world so blighted by abstraction, fog and brain shrinking shortcuts? It’s a story that wants to induce an epiphany, shake your kaleidoscope and make you see the world a different way, and with the aid of some maths and sublime engineering it succeeds. God, in all his guises, may just be a story, but what a colourful, imagination filling story it is: it gives life its richness and vitality, or so we’re told.
In his story’s composition, Yann Martel had in mind temples and art and the intangible relationship between all living things that religious cultures venerate. That’s a better story than those same cultures oppressing their population, perpetuating poverty and being intolerant of iconoclastic voices. Pi, his unreliable narrator, thinks the same but isn’t quite bright enough to understand what’s at stake in substituting fact with lovingly crafted fiction. The human imagination is indeed a beautiful thing; it created the concept of the spiritual, it’s just a shame that Martel didn’t recognise it for what it is: a metaphor.
Just once I’d like to see a movie that didn’t default to mysticism when talking about how you and I project our dreams onto things we don’t understand or can’t fully explain. God’s a good story, like Pi and his Tiger on the ocean but an even better one is the unseen mechanics of the everyday and commonplace. Nature doesn’t need pixie dust to make it astonishing, nature is pixie dust. Life of Pi celebrates the natural world and its bounty, editing out the brutality (or the substance as it’s more commonly known); it buffets its audience with mesmerising imagery: eye widening artificial storms, animals built with computer code, Gérard Depardieu’s obnoxious face; it’s a luminous lie. The audience exits with a swollen heart, a pocket full of miracles and a moon crescent smile but they’re no better off than when they entered. As a manifesto for misdirection and ignorance, it’s first rate: a fantasy designed to reinforce a fantasy.
But Ed, you say, does it matter if that fantasy remakes the world in beautiful strokes? It matters because Christianity, Islam, Hindi – the world’s most successful stories, confound the understanding and retard the intellect. Pi’s Father knows the score but he’s literally drowned out. One day we may see a movie brave enough to suggest it’s time to refocus the imagination so its awesome potential can be employed in celebrating the most incredible elements of our material existence. Until then we’re stuck with movies like this: grandiloquent banalities masquerading as profundities.
Still, Ang Lee’s technical ambition must be applauded; he’s made a film almost as beautiful as nature itself. It succeeds as a self-contained work of cinematic art as the adaptation of that other Booker Prize winner, Midnight’s Children, manifestly did not. Lee couldn’t make me believe in God but he’s reaffirmed a more progressive faith: a belief in the power of the movies to create spellbinding illusions that caress the eye and ply the brain. To be moved would have been divine but even a filmmaker as talented as Lee can’t work miracles when his flick’s philosophy is this thin. I thought of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the King of Swamp Castle’s determination to build on that sodden earth. It stayed up in the end but it wouldn’t take much for it to fall over.