We are told in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) that the Hindu god Vishnu dreams the world into existence. Vishnu is the Supreme Being, the Preserver of the universe, and, with that ability, the patron saint of movie directors perhaps. Especially now, when computers can transpose any dream onto the screen, directors become the supreme Vishnus of their own movies, and Lee, working with a story by Yann Martel, has dreamed a quite good one. This is a visual delight, complete with fantasy creatures, strange islands and incredible feats of human and animal endurance. It tells the tale of a young man who gets shipwrecked and spends nearly a year lost at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger and only his wits, faith and kindness to protect him from storms, hunger and the jaws of his traveling companion.
It’s fitting that a movie so inspiring from both a visual and human standpoint should begin with the search for inspiration. In Montreal, a struggling novelist (Rafe Spall) gets a tip that a man named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) has a great story that is waiting for the pen of a professional to come and capture it. Pi tells the novelist of his childhood in an area of what was French India, of a boy named Piscene Patel, ruined when his classmates discovered the similarity between his first name and an action verb denoting a bodily function, who shortens his name to Pi to avoid ridicule. His father is a serious, no-nonsense zookeeper, his mother a warm traditionalist. Like many young men, he thoughtfully takes in the world and its mysteries as a boy until life with its routines and casual cruelty dulls his enthusiasm before it can be rekindled by the universe’s enduring mystery: love. His curiosity leads him both to science (he studies the nature of the animals in the zoo and even memorizes hundreds of digits in the mathematical constant he named himself after) and to religion, keeping his native Hindu while adopting Catholicism (“Now I can feel guilty before millions of Gods”) and Islam. This duality allows him to know how to care for the animals but to also believe they have souls, something his father assures him they don’t.
When Pi is a young man (Suraj Sharma), the family is forced to leave India and relocate themselves and the animals to Canada. They and their cavalcade of exotic beasts board a dank ocean liner that is caught up in a terrible storm and sinks. Pi is able to miraculously gain access to a lifeboat, but his family goes down with the ship. Pi hardly has time to mourn, however, as it’s discovered that, freed from their cages during the storm, a few animals have stowed away on the lifeboat as well. “Welcome to Pi’s ark,” the weary captain says to his first mate (a seasick orangutan), his rear admiral (a zebra with a broken leg), and a dangerous saboteur (a hungry hyena). After the hyena finishes off the weaker animals and begins to leer at Pi, it’s revealed there’s another passenger: the pride of Pi’s father’s zoo, a magnificent tiger named Richard Parker that makes quick work of the pesky hyena but is set to do the same to Pi.
From there it’s survival of the fittest as Pi cleverly survives by using his understanding of the beast that hunts him and more than a little luck. He constructs a second raft, separate from but tethered to the lifeboat, where he can fish and rest without the threat of being eaten, and he eventually forces Richard Parker to come to a tacit, don’t-eat-me understanding with him. The animal is mostly computer generated but is convincing enough (“You cannot train a tiger to act,” wrote David Denby about the film, “but Stella Adler did a good job with Marlon Brando.”), and he is in more than a few ways the star of the show. He got his name from a paperwork error that left him with the moniker of the man that caught him, and he is always “Richard Parker,” never “Richard” or “Parker” or “Dick” and he commands that respect. Even when they learn to live with each other, Richard Parker never becomes Pi’s best friend. He’s not a Disney sidekick; he’s sleek and dangerous but vulnerable, and Lee does a good job of reminding us where he is at all times. The design and delivery of the boat sequence is impeccable. I have no doubt that Lee was using as controlled a space as possible, but shooting on water is never easy and the relational dimensions of the lifeboat and Pi’s second craft are always defined and consistent. This gives us a palpable sense of Pi’s plight and allows Lee to play with the tension as he can literally drift Pi in and out of danger.
Before he is rescued, Pi will stave off hunger and madness and will be privy to some of the most beautiful images this side of 2011’s The Tree of Life. Glowing whales, majestic flying fish and terrible lightning bring to mind the thin line between beauty and danger as all represent both. We are given a stark reminder that for all of our abilities (Pi’s ingenuity is certainly an asset, though he’s lucky he found a lifeboat with quite so much twine aboard as this one seems to have) and our strength (the powerful Richard Parker at times seems mythically invincible), we are all at the mercy of Mother Nature, personified here as a carnivorous island where Pi finds a human tooth wrapped in leaves of the trees.
It’s one of the best adventure movies in years. The shipwreck is the most thrilling sequence I’ve seen in a movie in 2012, and that’s including the high-profile summer blockbusters. Don’t be fooled by its spiritual backdrop; this is a white-knuckle type of movie and has as much to do with “the real India” as The Thief of Bagdad (1940). In fact, though I enjoyed the early scenes of the young Pi exploring the three different faiths and the tall tales of his family, they drag and aren’t congruent with the sea story, which is where our interests lie. Life of Pi is less like Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which itself had only a surface-deep penetration into modern India and openly exploited Western audiences’ preconceived notions of the country, and has more in common with Cast Away (2000), which wisely got us on the desert island in short order.
Some of the meandering of the early sections returns in the final third at sea as Pi and Richard Parker waste time in vestigial or repeated sequences. The movie is most alive when the storytelling is clear and simple, setting up a situation and paying it off. That’s true whether the scenario is grand in scale, as in the shipwreck, or meager, as in a wonderful sequence in which we are told that tigers can swim quite well, find out that’s the case but also discover they aren’t quite as good at getting back into lifeboats.
Still, what helps Life of Pi stay with you for longer than the usual swashbuckler is also its most polarizing element: it’s theme of truth versus fiction. Pi asserts to the novelist that his story will make him believe in God, an idea that is revealed as a choice at the end. The “truth” of Pi’s story is cast in shadow and we don’t leave the theater knowing definitively whether or not he really survived all that time with just his wits and a tiger. For some this is unbearable; they must know. Personally, I find ambiguity rewarding in movies because it gives me the choice of what I want to believe. I know that Pi did what he said he did because I saw it with my own eyes in the movie, whether he “really” did it is of tertiary concern to me because Lee and Martel invented it anyway and I’m the beneficiary of their wonderful creation. My enjoyment was real enough.