Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…
Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.
Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.
The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.
Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.
Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.
This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.
I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.
From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.
The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.
Basically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.
I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.
As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.