For goodness’ sake, do not watch this film. It might look enticing on the surface, with its beautiful, striking visuals and engaging story of a boy trapped on a lifeboat with a big fuck-off Bengal Tiger, but the tempting crust is nothing more than a trap. Underneath lies the bitter, toxic disappointment of presumptuous film-making, and awkward, agonizing characterization, which feels like sitting down for tea and biscuits with nice people, who then force-feed you broken glass and burn your face with soldering irons. While slapping your dear old mum. With a penis. Made of poo.
Life of Pi is ultimately a tale of cynicism, and this is a film that is very cynical indeed. It is very cynical about its viewers for one thing.
Life of Pi begins with a Canadian author. This author is a Canadian, who went to India to find a story, and is sent to Canada to find an Indian man to tell it. The film is full of forced, quirky parallels like this, and they aren’t going to get much better. He is meeting a man called Piscine Monitor Patel, who is named after a goddamn pool, for reasons which are painfully forced, who has a story to tell. And doesn’t he tell it. Doesn’t he just go on telling it, like the world’s smuggest cunt, his voice grating on your nerves like a serrated blade on a chalkboard.
There is no aspect of the life of Piscine that doesn’t have a charming little story behind it, and do not imagine for a single second that you will be spared a single one.
He is named Piscine Monitor after a Parisian pool, because his fuck-wit of an uncle is a wonderfully quirky character, who collects pools around the world, and this particular pool happened to be his favorite. Then Piscine’s father names him that, because of…reasons. I can’t remember what, and it wouldn’t make a single bit of difference to anyone. That little piece of minutiae is no longer with me. I assume my brain autonomously deleted it in self-defense.
Unfortunately Piscine gets bullied by the other children, allegedly because his name sounds like “Pissing”, but I suspect because he is an unbearable tosser. So he decides to solve the problem by starting to call himself Pi instead, and impresses the other children and teachers by remembering the value of Pi, down to several hundred decimals. This, by the way, was the third time within the first 20 minutes, when I was quite ready to admit defeat and stop watching.
This is one of those films that is so far up its conceited arse that it’s in serious danger of collapsing into an autoerotic singularity, and warping into a parallel reality where random, quirky peculiarities are viewed as markers of the highest art. What you’d find up that particular arse, would be religion. Religion, and religious discourse, circling around faith, belief and uncertainty permeate this 2-plus-hour-long sermon like an inoperable cancer.
This film establishes early on that it is going to make you believe in God. I wish I was kidding, this is established as a story that is going to flip-turn your world upside down, and leave you filled with pious certainty of Celestial Benevolence and the Providence of the Divine Plan. Pi’s charming little peculiarities know no end, but most important is that he collects world religions like your mum collects venereal diseases. Pi first becomes a Hindu, later becoming a christian and Muslim as well, practicing all three at the same time. Pi’s mother supports his quirks, encouraging him to search himself, while his father, the token sensible person, is frustrated and worried by Pi’s indiscriminant acceptance of religious philosophies and credo. His brother Ravi does what any brother would, and takes the piss out of him.
Pi’s family owns a zoo, where they get a new tiger called Richard Parker. There is a story behind the name, believe it or not. One day Pi goes in to make friends with the tiger, holding a piece of meat between the bars of his cage, where his father discovers him before he loses half his arm. His father becomes concerned Pi and reality aren’t really on talking terms anymore, and forces him to see the real nature of the predatory animal, and puts in a goat in with the tiger. Nature follows its course, and Pi has his first moment of disillusionment and falls into melancholy, before coming across his first crush, which seems to make him rebound right back.
However, faced with an uncertain future in India, the father decides they’ll move their family, along with all the animals in the zoo, across the Pacific ocean. The trip is uneventful and they reach California without any trouble.
Nah, of course not. Their ship faces a rough storm, where Pi wakes up and goes on the deck to watch the storm, pneumonia be damned. Shit hits the fan hard, and the ship sinks in the middle of the Atlantic, with only one life-boat escaping the disaster. On it: Pi, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena and Richard Parker. Soon enough, nature again takes its course, and there’s only Richard Parker and Pi left.
This is where the actually interesting part of the film actually begins, and I’m left wondering why the most interesting aspect of the film is padded on all sides by conceited pseudo-philosophical jizz, to the point where it is hardly present at all. Pi must somehow share a lifeboat with a big fucking tiger, who would really prefer to eat the idiot primate, and his resourcefulness and wits are the only thing keeping him alive. Pi develops a sense of companionship with the tiger, to the point where he will spend a lot of his time fishing for his carnivorous friend and training him with a whistle and a Pavlovian mechanism of sea-sickness inducing wave-motion with ropes and a sea-anchor. The open sea and stars supply some of the film’s most beautiful visuals, between brutal storms and dead-calm seas, and times during the night when the ocean becomes an infinite black mirror.
The film takes another path through Bullshit Boulevard as Pi begins to lose his shit, and he and Richard Parker hit an island in the middle of the Pacific, which is inhabited by thousands of computer-generated Meerkats. Pi spends a dreamlike day on the island, and goes to sleep up in a tree, where he finds a human tooth encased in a flower. Like any rational-minded individual, he decides this is a man-eating island, which lives on poor marooned sailors down on their luck, and decides it’s time to get the fuck out.
Eventually, they drift to the coast of Mexico, where the emaciated Richard Parker jumps out of the boat and wanders into the jungle, without a single glance back. This causes Pi to break down again, because the tiger broke away from their companionship so unceremoniously, which probably means he really should stop projecting onto the poor animal, the daft bastard that he is.
Pi is found by some nice people, and becomes hospitalized, where people from the insurance company come to meet him, hoping he could clarify what happened to the whole Japanese freighter with all the bloody cargo, people and animals on it. Being a twat, Pi wastes their time telling his fantastic, unbelievable story. Being serious businessmen, they are unhappy with the story, and try to ask him what really happened, and give them a story they can write down in their papers and send along to the serious people in their serious offices.
So Pi goes serious and tells the same story, with the animals replaced by human characters, including Pi’s mum, Gerald Depardieau and a nice Buddhist sailor. This story is of course much more realistic and depressing, showing people doing what they generally do when societal restrictions are removed: being amoral, egotistical thugs. Thus the second reading of the film is revealed: the tiger was Pi all along. The two readings are opposed as the fantastical one and the realistic one; religious sentiment and tolerance of the impossible, opposed to cynical atheism and insistence on physical reality. The two readings are left floating equally valid, within the reality of the film, since the tiger is gone and everyone apart from Pi is dead, there is really no definite way to say whether Pi’s story is solid fact or delirious fantasy, brought about by solitude, exposure and tragic experience, or a history created in psychic defense to traumatic events.
The film’s grand claim is to persuade the audience that the first one is the better one, and by analogy to make you genuinely believe in God. However, when the time comes for the film to lay down the ace it’s been stashing up its arse the entire time, it comes down to “it’s nicer.” It is nicer to believe. Really? This was the grand argument? Here at the very end of the film the construction irrevocably breaks down, as the house of cards is revealed to miss most of the cards, and built on a table made of custard. The rhetoric points of the film are miserably weak, and behind the seemingly honest and confident belief in its own ideals, the film reveals cynical cracks in the facade of its contentions – towards God, faith, truth, and above all others the viewer. Assuming people will indulgently choose their beliefs based on personal comfort and what is ‘nice’, passes on a misanthropic and derisive view of humanity in general, where belief in logic, rationality and principles of the search for authentic knowledge are overruled by gratification in comforting ignorance and mysticism. If this is the strongest point of rhetoric thrown in our faces, the film-makers’ belief in their own premise seems somewhat undermined.
Ang Lee’s strength has always been visuals, and they are pretty much the strongest part of the film, yet, even they seem surprisingly underwhelming. The line between computer-generated effects and real footage is painfully apparent, and often breaks the immersion where the audience is supposed to be most immersed. Even assuming the eyes of the audience are bombarded by sublime visual eye-candy, it does nothing to relieve the pain of the protagonists pseudo-philosophical babble that the audience is subjected to, for every painful minute of this painful, awkward and dysfunctional film.
I quite honestly can see very little to recommend this film to anyone with a full use of their audiovisual organs. This experience will almost certainly make you feel, in turn, irritated, awkward and bored, leaving you underwhelmed and disappointed, if you can make it all the way to the bitterly hollow ending without throwing something heavy at the screen. So yeah, I didn’t particularly like it. You might, but then again some people like to wear gimp-suits and have a domineering matron stand behind them, forcing them to fill in their tax-reports and hit them hard with a riding whip whenever they fill the wrong column. There’s no accounting for taste.