Film Review: Life of Pi

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Tiger Feat

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.

Directed by: Ang Lee

Country: US/China

Year: 2012

Running Time: 127 mins

Certificate: PG for Rafe Spall, the harmful treatment of computer generated animals and Rafe Spall.

9 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    Another bad review from the world’s most famous critic.

  2. David says:

    Finally, a review that reflects my feeling as I walked out of the theatre last night. A feeling of such breathtaking loss, that the immense possibilities of the medium, and the potential for communication were lost in the marshmallow-sweet faux-philosophical self-help burblings. Yes, the imagery was breathtaking, though made claustrophobic by the schoolboy wisdom of the wide-eyed narrator, every detail, every metaphor and symbol, explained and re-explained ad nauseum. Ultimately, wondrous digital imagery signifying nothing. And this, ultimately, was the most tragic realization.

  3. David Griggs says:

    I share the reviewer’s secular bent, but I think he has missed the point.
    We are part of a universe made of atoms, and we are made of the same atoms as everything else. So why Religion? Why have most humans throughout most of human history devoted so much of their brief lives to the worship of some God or gods, frequently torturing and slaughtering any non-worshippers in the vicinity? At this moment in my life, this movie offers the best answer I have yet seen to that question.
    A young boy who was raised in a loving family is thrown into a lifeboat with three other people: his mother, a seaman with a broken leg, and a cook who is a powerful hate-filled sadist. He is forced to help the sadist torture the seaman, then watches as the sadist assaults and murders his mother. The tiger in him is awakened, and he kills the sadist, then is left alone in boat to survive, if he can, and to come to terms with senseless violence, pain, loss, and his own murderous nature.
    How starting from here does he grow up into a man capable of loving, nurturing, protecting a wife and children? Where does he find the faith and trust required to do this? How does he become a person with gentleness, confidence, generosity, humor, optimism, appreciation of life, that he needs to be in order to become the husband and father he wants to be? The stories we tell ourselves growing up, the stories we tell our children and each other, must be more than scientific notes recording “just the facts.” How do you balance the importance of recording facts with the need to create meaning? We cannot change what happened, but we can, and we must, choose what meaning we create from what happened.
    The movie portrays the struggle of a boy and a man to transubtantiate his life. I agree with Ang Lee: it is worth the effort.

  4. Savage says:

    The most extreme side of me agrees with the review, and it certainly runs closest to my own ideas of the film of all the reviews I have read. I also, however, understand where David Griggs (comment above) is coming from.

    It seems to me that a story such as this told in a world without organised religion and its evils would hit a different note among strictly rational viewers. The film works around the idea that the results are the results and the effects of the story you choose are in place already, and therefore, you are free to take whichever belief works best for you. That’s not a terribly offensive idea in itself but the film, rather than feeling like an endorsement of personal imagination and individual beliefs, still feels like some sort of excuse for all of the religions it mentions. I feel that, had the early scenes places more emphasis on the abandonment of organised religion (particularly for its ignorance and crimes), in favour of a personal, inconsequential practice of imagination, the end wouldn’t have fallen so flat. It’s steers neatly along the fence but its set wobbling by the setup and comes clean off by the end, distinctly in the direction of religion.

    Of course, as covered by the review, it only takes a real, bold look to see that what is there already is as, if not more, magnificent that the imagination could muster.

    • Jack T says:

      There is a section in the book where atheism and a respect for the natural world as opposed to a higher power is touched on. It is curious that they should leave that out- it wouldnt have felt overlong with it included, and would have given a more balanced perspective on things, rather than endorsing religion, as you said.
      I think you’ll find the book itself is well balanced, but perhaps the lack of mention of atheism in the movie (apart from the heated argument of Pi with his dad, not exactly positive) upset that fine balance, and has obviously upset this reviewer.

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  6. Marc says:

    How can you not like a movie that at least tries to explain the unexplainable – God, the meaning of life, the wonders of nature? Religions try to explain God’s grand plan through stories of morals and ethics but are limited by our own ability to understand. Even though we may be the smartest spieces on the planet, we lack the brain power to fully know how it all works. Evolution we’re always told. A spider knows how to structure a web in a geometric pattern because all the spiders before them didn’t? How? A flower evolves by the way of a bee polinating it because the version of it before didn’t? How? The eye evolved by first a mutation of a cell that was sensitive to light – it then mutates enough to include an iris, a lens of clear skin to focus, an eye lid to protect it. How? Evolution of course… and time. That’s what we are told to believe. Survival of the fittist. It’s science. But then how is it we have two fully developed eyes and not just one. How could both evolve at the same time. Why not three or four eyes? How did the brain evolve to interpret vision?
    There is so much unbelieveable stuff around us, we take nature for granted. So much so, we don’t even bother to question it. It’s all too fantastic. We say evolution but maybe evolution is really part of the original design. Plants and animals are meant to evolve but were first given life by a creator, a God that wants them to evolve.
    Life of Pi at least makes an attempt to show the wonders around us, survival of the fittist, and how we probably are not equipped to understand God’s plan.
    The movie is dreamlike, fun, beautiful and deep. I don’t feel I wasted $12.00, in fact, I’d like to see it again.

    • Andrew says:

      Well get a couple of Masters Degrees in appropriate scientific fields and then maybe you will start to develop an understanding of “how”. Until then maybe you should just take the word of those people that are significantly more intelligent than you. (I am not suggesting I am one before you try and go down that path)

  7. Andrew says:

    Damn, I’m seeing it tomorrow. I don’t agree with some of your reviews, (End of watch) but I do like your way of putting things. The worst part is going to be gently expressing my dislike of the movie when everyone around me is talking crap about the beauty……shoot me now.