Two sons are born to the proprietor of an Indian zoo. Over time, he realizes that they could be making more money in North America so he decides to transport the animals and his family on a cargo ship to Canada. The ship is caught in a storm and sinks, leaving the youngest son of the proprietor alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean… with a Bengal tiger in stow. It’s like “Castaway,” if instead of a volleyball, Wilson was a tiger.
The story primarily takes place on a lifeboat in open water, and while a tiger may be interesting for a decent amount of time, it can’t hold your attention for the full length of the movie. There has to be a catch to all this, beyond the need to survive, some undercurrent of an overarching story. The movie is narrated by an older Pi, describing his story in past tense to a novelist with writer’s block. Pi’s story comes with the promise that by the end he will believe in God. His journey on this lifeboat becomes an odyssey to find God, wherever he may be hiding, in whatever natural aid is thrown at him. Instead of the ocean being cruel and sometimes forgiving, everything suddenly becomes God’s test.
Call me non-religious, but I think that’s where most of the problems with this movie come from. Everything that happens in the lifeboat is interesting because it’s easy to sympathize with animals or well-developed characters. However, the tension this movie attempted to create is driven out by the use of God as an unseen force and by the fact that we see an older Pi safe and sound in his home. Suraj Sharma does an incredible job acting as Pi and his conflict with the tiger is what keeps the story interesting beyond the question of whether or not they survive, but I feel like it’s really undercut by the theological; especially when the older Pi explains where God is in the story. To compare it to another Tom Hanks movie, think about “Forrest Gump” when Lieutenant Dan got mad and started yelling at God that he couldn’t sink the boat. Imagine an entire movie based on that, driven by the audience’s love of the characters alone. It certainly doesn’t fail, but the conflict been Pi and the tiger is all that’s there. If that were to ever go away, the only thing left to keep the viewer engaged are the visuals. After all, you already know the end from the beginning.
Before we jump into spoiler territory and the movie starts to seem even worse, let’s at least find a happy place to jump off from. This movie looks really, really good. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or HBO knowingly deciding to air all of its visually amazing movies in one month, but this movie looks great. When you consider that most of this story takes place in a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, this is an impressive movie. Add to that the fact that this movie is based off a book which was considered impossible to film, and you’ve got a winner.
It begins a little slow, but character development helps to connect us with Pi before his journey begins. The surreal nature of his upbringing serves to help us really believe that he could actually be stuck in a lifeboat with a live tiger, as impossible as that situation sounds. The tiger doesn’t even look computer generated, partly because of the skill of the animator and partly because it’s so easy to look past that and at the bigger picture. The Bengal tiger stops being an effect and becomes a character. It’s easy to make an audience feel sympathy for an animal because, like this movie says, we project our own emotions and feelings onto them. This movie made me feel something a step further than sympathy. As Pi bonded with the tiger, I could understand their condition. It’s just the two of them and nothing else. Without each other they wouldn’t be able to make it.
But to delve deeper into spoilers…
Pi is telling this story to the writer. The writer is taking this all in, enthralled by his perseverance and hope. However, he was promised that this was a story that would make him believe in God. That one could believe it was God’s hand in everything that happened, or one could believe that it was something along the lines of incredible luck and good fortune. However, at the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the story of Pi and the Bengal tiger in the lifeboat is a lie, a fable that has overtaken Pi’s mind. He was not, in fact, the only person to survive in the lifeboat. Pi chooses the story that he wrote for himself out of that experience. He chooses what didn’t happen as the official events of his life. And in that way, he believes in God.
First off, what that does is essentially dissolve the story. Dream sequences are moments that better establish character in a movie. There’s a reason people don’t like endings that turn out to be dreams. 90% of the time it’s not satisfying to find out that you have been duped out of an experience that you were led to believe was genuine of the world you choose to visit at the theater. Secondly, and I may have missed something in translation, but wouldn’t this movie be implying that illusion is better than reality, by showcasing that Pi’s fabled version of his life events led him to understanding belief in God? That you should take the blue pill and stay in the matrix? That satisfying lies are uncomfortable truths? That this is what it means to believe in God? Something’s not right here. It seems like he’s saying that to believe in God, all one needs is a story that embraces that belief. But his life experiences weren’t enough for him, so he rewrote them.
That story of survival on its own would be enough to convince one that there is, in fact, a miraculous savior watching over him, if only for the fact that he found glimmers of hope when he was struggling the most. It’s established early on that Pi needs to use his reason before anything else to set a path for himself. Later on he says he wishes he could offer gratitude to his Father for offering him that guidance. Wouldn’t embracing the fake story be a complete turnaround of the beliefs his Father had? It seems like by the end, the movie teaches us to embrace a lie if it means living a happier life. I don’t know if I agree with that.
Life of Pi is available on HBO and HBO Go starting TOMORROW NIGHT (8/24). If you’d like to own the experience forever check out the Blu-Ray discs. Or better yet, give the book a read!