Life of Pi: A Skeptical Review

November 26, 2012

The Life of Pi begins almost as a nature documentary, with footage of a lavish Indian zoo where Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) grows up with his family. Eventually the Patel family (and many of the zoo animals) board a freighter headed for Canada. A storm sinks the ship (in what is one of the most amazing and gripping such scenes in cinema), and soon Pi finds himself the sole human survivor, trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger.

Much of the rest of the film follows Pi's journey on the boat, hoping to be rescued and in danger of being eaten himself. The Life of Pi has long stretches where not much happens, and what does happen isn't that interesting. He awaits to be rescued, tries to tame the tiger, catches fish, sees beautiful visions, and so on. It's all very lush and lyrical, but never really gels into a solid story.

Pi is, well--there's no polite way to phrase it--he's confused. Pi insists that he's both a Catholic and a Muslim. If you know little or nothing about Catholicism or Islam that might seem superficially plausible, but in fact they are mutually exclusive. Muslims believe (and must recite) the shahada creed, that "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet." Depending on which version of the Christian Ten Commandments you read, the first or second is, "You shall have no gods before me." Allah is not the Christian God, and no amount of tortured logic or apologetics can make them the same. Christianity and Islam (and Hinduism for that matter) hold many contradictory core beliefs, and the fact that Pi doesn't recognize that speaks volumes about his character and the superficiality of his beliefs. (Anyone who thinks that all religions basically say the same thing should read up on comparative religions; one good place to start is Stephen Prothero's book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World.)

At one point Pi finds himself on a beach, and based upon nothing more than finding what appears to be a human tooth, he concocts a bizarre theory about how someone must have been there before, and was eaten by the land, and he must escape as soon as possible. Without even bothering to explore the area to find out whether he's reached a Brazilian beach or a deserted island-for all he knows, there may be a highway or village only a mile inland-he gets back in his boat and leaves. Though there's no hint that Pi is suicidal in the film, he often acts that way.

There's little logic or rhyme or reason to Pi's journey. I suppose that's intended to be part of the magic-that we don't know what's real, what's a hallucination-but if that's the case, if there are no rules and anything goes, then presumably on his journey he might just as easily have encounter dinosaurs, Smurfs, Abraham Lincoln, or even a bedraggled Tom Hanks and Wilson the volleyball from Castaway.

Is Pi's fantastic story of living on a boat with a tiger for months true? At one point Pi is questioned by investigators trying to determine how the ship went down. One of them points to a supposed hole in his story: Pi mentioned that an adult orangutan floated to him on a bunch of bananas. "Bananas don't float," the investigator says. "Yes, they do," Pi insists.

But they doubt his story, so he tells them a new one, complete with sincere conviction and tears. Yet I was uncomfortable with this touch of post-modernism at the end, suggesting that one person's subjective truth is as good as the next. What of the family members of the crew lost at sea? What if a son or daughter came to Pi wanting to know the truth about their mother or father's death, and sole survivor Pi told them several different versions, and said with a wink and a nod that they should believe whichever one "makes a better story"? Don't they deserve the truth?

Like Pi himself, the filmmakers want to straddle the fence, flirting with different truths and realities and contradictions. Yet without the courage of conviction anchoring the film in one interpretation, the film's narrative is adrift. Pi is frustratingly contradictory and elusive; for as much as we see of his life (which is a lot), he remains a cipher. Pi is smart enough to memorize pi to 100 digits, but apparently not smart enough not to remove most of his food and supplies from the lifeboat and stack them onto a flat raft which is sure to tip over at the first large wave. (I'm not being judgmental; Pi himself admits he's an idiot.) Pi mentions his profound relief at finally finding shade on the boat-yet he inexplicably spends most of his time atop the shade in the full sun, often bare-chested.

Pi also demonstrates a certain shallowness of thought when he falls into the common and obvious fallacy of thanking God for saving him (he catches a fish for food, interpreting it as a gift from God), while conveniently ignoring the fact that if he was so concerned about Pi's welfare, God could have simply not let the ship sink in the first place. It's like plane crash survivors who are so certain that a benevolent God was looking out for them; God gets credit for saving one or two lives, but no blame for taking dozens or hundreds of other lives. If this is the level of self-reflection that the film brings to Pi's life and crisis of faith, then frankly I'm not impressed.

A larger problem is that the film doesn't give the audience any reason to care about Pi's spiritual journey. The frame of the story is that Pi is telling his life story to a visiting writer, promising that it will make him believe in God. That's all well and good, but we're given no reason to care about either of these characters. We have nothing invested in them to begin with, so why Pi believes in God, or whether the writer agrees that his story is true and amazing isn't that important. The screenwriters fell into the trap of telling instead of showing: They could have introduced Pi differently, perhaps with some bold or bizarre action, in such a way that we are intrigued by him and wanting to know more about him and what formed his ideas; instead we're simply told (by a second-hand source) that he has something to say that's worth our while.

Put another way, if I met someone in line at a bank or waiting in a doctor's office who wanted to tell me about why he believed in God--or was a Christian, Mormon, or Jehovah's Witness, or believed that 9/11 was a cover-up, or wanted to describe an acid trip at a Jethro Tull concert--I'd avoid eye contact and desperately look for a magazine to read.

Films with unreliable narrators can be excellent (see, for example, Swimming Pool, or Jacob's Ladder, or The Usual Suspects). But when the subject is a person's spiritual journey, it matters whether their experiences were real or dreamt. What, exactly, are we to make of Pi's journey and life? It's all rather meandering and murky. At one point Pi asks, in response to a question about his story, "Why should it mean anything"? Yet this answer is disingenuous at best; clearly director Ang Lee and the screenwriters want us to imbue the film's plot and themes with meaning. I get the premise: a boy's attempts to make sense of the world, reconciling his need for spirituality and order in a chaotic, animalistic world. Beyond that, who knows?

Yet it was through this view that I was able to find some redemption in the film. Once I stopped tying to make sense of Pi's journey and reconcile the film's contradictions, the film got better. I've been told that the novel upon which the film is based is a good read, and that the film was considered unfilmable; I suspect both assessments were correct. The Life of Pi deserves credit for ambition and artistic merit; as a visual achievement it's a remarkable film. The tiger, for example, is mostly computer-generated, and stunningly realistic. As a satisfying fable telling the life of Pi Patel, it leaves something to be desired.

By the way, a stalk of bananas do in fact float; I tested it myself. They don't sink, but stay at the water line. This detail would seem to confirm at least that part of Pi's story-until you realize that the question isn't whether bananas float, it's whether they float with a 100+ pound adult orangutan sitting on top of them, and the answer is almost certainly no.