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Non-Review Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi is visually stunning. It is an amazing accomplishment. I’ll be the first to admit that I am skeptical of 3D, but in the hands of the right director – Martin Scorsese, James Cameron and, now, Ang Lee – it is a fascinating storytelling tool. The computer-generated imagery is magical, as are the compositions and scene transitions. There’s no doubt that Ang Lee is a superb craftsman. Indeed, the visual majesty of the film is enough to make you dismiss some of the lighter narrative elements, accepting some of the incongruities as expressions of “magical realism” or simply a function of allegorical storytelling. It’s not the densest, or the most insightful, story you will see, but it’s well-told.

Unfortunately, then you reach the end, and Life of Pi tries to get considerably smarter than it actually is. It pulls a clumsy narrative trick that leaves the audience feeling a bit disoriented and more than a little manipulated. Life of Pi finds itself torn between trying to be a beautiful allegorical story of survival and a deeper commentary on the stories that we tell. Forcing one undermines the other. While Life of Pi might convince you that a boy and a tiger can share a lifeboat, the two competing aspects of Life of Pi sink the story.

Not quite a glowing recommendation...

Not quite a glowing recommendation…

I’ll try not to spoil anything. After all, the ending is best seen unspoiled and I imagine that it is fairly divisive. I can see one’s opinion of the narrative conceit in the final few moments shaping one’s perception of the film – for better or for worse. There are those who will suggest that the ending enhances the potency of what came before, allowing the viewer to piece together a jigsaw puzzle that was already outlined for them. On the other hand, some will argue that it is merely a means to turn what would otherwise be a bleak and heartbreaking a story a happy ending that it never earns. Unfortunately, having watched the film, I find myself leaning more towards the latter than the former.

The problem isn’t the “twist” itself. I put the word “twist” in inverted commas because it isn’t really a surprise. I had pretty much settled on an interpretation of events that matched the reveal at the film’s climax, and I doubt I was alone in it. It all hinges on one fact that is pretty hard for even the most literal-minded film-goer to miss. Once you accept that basic premise, the rest of the story flows from that. Again, it is easy to figure out what is and is not unfolding based on the narrative decisions made by the film. In a two-hour film, the narrative will rarely focus on something unimportant, and there’s one very obvious question raised by the opening credits that is resolved with the conversation at the movie’s climax.

I assume the term "lifeboat" is ironic...

I assume the term “lifeboat” is ironic…

This reveal is logical. It makes sense. In fact, literally explaining it to the audience seems a little on the nose. It doesn’t seem t trust the audience to piece together what is a fairly basic narrative device. However, once that discussion takes place, the film then makes some very dodgy character decisions that feel more than a little convenient. The fact that these things have been expressly stated raises all manner of questions – and they are questions that belie the film’s commitment to a relatively optimistic world view. Quite simply, Life of Pi wusses out on that point, refusing to follow through on the implications of what is a fairly clever narrative trick – and, like all tricks, it loses some of its appeal when you have to explain it.

It’s a shame to dwell on an ending that I don’t want to spoil, because Life of Pi is visually amazing. The world as seen through the film is truly wondrous and magical. Floating (almost) alone on the Pacific ocean, it’s almost as if the eponymous castaway has been whisked off to some magical world. Fish glow in the dark, dolphins splash, whales burst out of the screen. Even in 3D the colours are still vibrant, practically popping out of the screen. The main character’s uncle steers a writer to the survivor. “He said you have a story that will make me believe in God,” the writer states. If it does, it also demonstrates that He is an artist working on a truly beautiful canvas.

Whale of a time...

Whale of a time…

“I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me,” Pi remarks of the tiger who shared the boat with him. Ang Lee and his crew of talented animators are dedicated to proving that to the audience. It is an over-used plaudit these days, but there are times when it is very tough to tell that Richard Parker has been brought to life by a computer. He flirts with the uncanny valley when he gets wet, or when he looks thin, but he looks pretty close to the real deal for most of the film. It’s absolutely astonishing, and it is a massive credit to the film. A lot of it hinges on the audience accepting the tiger for what he is, and Life of Pi does a truly mesmerising job with that.

Whether or not the story can convince you to believe in God – and it is more than a little too coy on the matter – it does convince the audience to believe in Richard Parker. And, once you believe in Richard Parker, it’s a lot easier to excuse the more interesting narrative choices as demonstrations of allegory. It’s immediately clear that Pi is, at the very least, embellishing his story. After all, the first third of the film is spent establishing Pi as a character with a gift for storytelling. The heightened saturation, the surreal imagery and the idea that a tiger and a boy could coexist on the same lifeboat all but confirms that.

I'm king of the... er, nevermind...

I’m king of the… er, nevermind…

Once the audience accepts that premise, the strange narrative turns and meditations all make a bit more sense. Moments of what seem like stupidity on the part of Pi become more excusable as an expression of deeper themes. A brief visit to an island towards the end of the film seems like a rather weird choice when it comes to pacing the movie – it comes out of nowhere and drifts out of view just as quickly. It is easy enough to imagine that the entire sequence could have been trimmed for time, making me wonder if there are a few other almost episodic adventures that were trimmed from the source material but filmed. While the diversion seems a little strange structurally, it makes a lot more sense once you embrace the fact that this is more of an allegory than a straight-up fake “true story.”

Life of Pi is a story about surviving the impossible, and how best to maintain one’s humanity in the face of a truly daunting reality. The problem comes at the end, with how the movie ultimately chooses to deal with this heightened narrative it has woven. Literally articulating those themes is a bit clumsy, but the film never seems quite able to handle the ending. It wants to be a story about endurance and survival, about hanging on to what makes a person human in the most inhuman of circumstances. The ending basically forces the characters to examine the story literally, which is a legitimate choice – but you have to be willing to at least make a decent attempt to tackle the questions you raise.

Not quite the gold standard...

Not quite the gold standard…

The movie ultimately forces several characters to make a choice about what has happened. The choice itself is shortchanged, and its implications all but ignored. Rather than using the question as a means to examine how we approach stories and reality, instead the film uses it to try to sell us on a happy ending that isn’t really a happy ending.

4 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on 今タイムマシーン.

  2. I must admit, initially I had no idea what this film was about from a teaser trailer a few weeks back. It’s been growing on me now and I really want to see it. Looks visually stunning and – I imagine – will be quite an uplifting tale. I’ll be blogging about it as soon as I see it. Got to see The Hobbit first though!

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