Movie Reviews

'Life of Pi' (2012) Movie Review

A visual masterpiece with a muddied third act

Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi
Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Ang Lee's Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, is first and foremost a spiritual journey for its title character. A God-loving zookeeper's son, Pi (Suraj Sharma) is emigrating with his family from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship with the animals stored below when a violent storm sends the ship to the bottom of the ocean. Pi survives aboard a lifeboat, which he shares with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a massive Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What follows is Pi's story of enlightenment and survival.

'Life of Pi'
Review
Grade: C+

Life of Pi"Life of Pi" is a 20th Century Fox release, directed by and is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.

The cast includes , , , , and .

For more information on this film including pictures, trailers and a detailed synopsis .

Like the book, the film is told as a flashback with a twenty-years older Pi (Irrfan Khan) relaying his story to an author (Rafe Spall) that has been told Pi had a story that would make him believe in God.

God, in this instance, should most likely be placed in quotes because for Pi there is no definitive version as he chooses to practice not only his native Hinduism, but Christianity and Islam as well. He's a lover of stories and he's a boy of feelings and his belief in God is one that can't very well be confined to one religion.

So, what exactly does it mean this story will make us believe in God?

I took it as a reference to an idea, a feeling and a presence more than any one, singularly specific all-powerful being, though even that could be up for debate. This "idea" also manifests itself as a preference and a choice, which comes to light as the story moves into its third act, asking what you choose, or prefer, to believe when faced with the harshness of reality when questioning the unbelievable.

In this sense, Life of Pi is really all about what you make it. It's a film that will probably move some people to tears while others may be left stone-faced and unmoved. I fall somewhere in-between.

I marveled at Ang Lee's visuals as this is a film that wouldn't be nearly as effective had Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda not composed their shots in such a painterly fashion. It's simply beautiful and some shots will leave you breathless as Mychael Danna's score swells and the waves come crashing down.

You become absorbed in the story, which can also be attributed to this being the first time I've seen a non-IMAX 3-D film and can say the use of 3-D actually has an impact on the story. The majority of stereoscopic films add depth to an image without inviting the viewer in, whereas Life of Pi brings the story to you.

I attribute much of this to the barren, watery landscape of much of the picture. The 3-D, in fact, can sometimes be attributed to giving life to a story where it tends to drag. The film opens with Pi at home in India, dabbling in a variety of religions and introducing us to his family. The majority of the rest of the story is set at sea with Pi and Richard Parker fighting to survive amid powerful storms, flying fish and whales in a sea of jellyfish illuminated by the moonlight. It's a breathtaking picture in large part, but I can't say I walked away as moved as I felt I was intended to be.

The message that comes across in the end is one to take note of, but I can't say I've found myself dwelling on it since leaving the theater. For me, Life of Pi is more of a uniquely composed vision that's a bit more meditative than I felt was necessary. It dwells far too long on Pi's plight at sea, running almost 10-15 minutes too long with an island sequence in particular marking the moment it began to lose my attention, largely because I felt it had reached its emotional climax only minutes earlier.

All of that said, it all really comes down to one word for me, and if you haven't read the book or seen the movie you may want to stop here and read the final paragraphs after you've seen it.

** SPOILERS FOLLOW **

Upon surviving the ordeal Pi is asked by two members of the Japanese Ministry of Transport to tell the story of what happened to the ship that sank. Pi tells them the story as seen in the film, which they don't accept and ask him to tell them a story they can believe. So he tells them a story where the animal inhabitants in the original story are now people that were aboard the ship, including the ship's ill-tempered cook (Gerard Depardieu) and Pi's mother. The horrific story involves murder and cannibalism. It's a story where all hope is lost and the question of "What is the point of surviving if this is the world we live in?" becomes entirely valid.

After telling the story we flash back to the present where the older Pi asks the author interviewing him, "What story do you prefer?" The author replies, "The one with the tiger."

The phrasing of the question immediately struck me. The word "prefer" I found to be an odd choice. Why not ask, "What story do you believe?" or even "What story do you prefer to believe?"

In short, to prefer the story with the tiger is to prefer Pi's family died in a watery grave and the murderous and ugly side of human nature was never given the chance to show its face, substituted with the will to survive in the face of the most extreme conditions.

To prefer the gruesome story of murder and cannibalism is to say all you can really understand and accept as reality in this world is the ugly side of humanity.

So which story do you prefer? Well obviously the story with the tiger, but with that answer comes some serious repercussions, especially if you rephrase the question to ask which story you believe.

You can prefer a story that sounds too good to be true because it is more appealing than the actual truth, but can you believe it? Whether it's murder and cannibalism or a tiger killing a goat as its next meal, we would prefer softer more delicate realities, but are they believable? As evidenced in this story all harsh realities are softened throughout Pi's journey. The moment Richard Parker kills a goat isn't shown, the story of what may or may not have happened aboard that lifeboat is harsh to a point, but any and all death is never seen on screen. Are we really meant to turn our attention away from reality so as to create the illusion that the world is a better place than it actually may be?

With that I will say I believe the horror story Pi tells second to be the true story, but not because the story with the tiger is so unbelievable, but because the second story is told with such immediacy, emotion and description. You may say, "But so was the story of the tiger," to which I would say, "Yes, the mind can come up with some pretty impressive hallucinations when facing such a traumatic experience. Not to forget, Pi's asking what story you 'prefer' is a big wink in my opinion."

I love it when films leave things open for interpretation and discussion and that's where Life of Pi earns my respect beyond its tremendous visuals, but in the end Pi doesn't ask which story we prefer by accident. The word "prefer" is intentional and as a result I felt it throws a wrench in everything it aimed to accomplish.

Visually it's a masterpiece, but when it comes to looking at it on a deeper level I found too many things caused it to unravel.

GRADE: C+
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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Aleonardis/ Aleonardis

    !SPOILERS!

    The feelings on this one are really interesting and I think yours is the only middle of the road review where it felt like you objectively didn't like aspects. Other reviews come off as "Hey! I didn't believe in god by the end so it's a bad movie!"

    I disagree with your thoughts on the island sequence because there's something about the island that I interpreted that was important to the emotional climax that just happened. I take the island as good bye of sorts. Since you went into spoilers, I think you should put "spoiler" into the description since I'm sure the comments are going to get into them as well.

    When they land on the island, it's a paradise of sorts. It has all the things you would need but you would be stuck there. When Pi figures this out, he leaves and calls out for Richard Parker. There's a long shot on the forest. Before Richard Parker comes, I noticed what looked like an orange and black carcass. This is when I realized that when I was crying 15 minutes earlier, it's because Richard Parker really did just die and the island is his final resting place. It's the idea of Richard Parker that Pi can't let go of that comes bursting out of the forest. An idea that pushes him forward and out of the hands of death onto the shores of Mexico to safety.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mason%20Williamson/ Mason Williamson

    *Spoilers, I suppose*
    ---------------------------

    I have yet to see the film, but I have read the book twice and really do love it. Based on your description of it, it sounds as if the film echoes the novel quite closely (which is somewhat disappointing - hopefully they do make a few different choices) and so I feel as though I can throw in my two cents.

    Personally, the ambiguity at the end of the novel was what solidified it as one of my favorites. I've discussed which story I believe to be truly with a number of others and have heard arguments for both. In my opinion, the more gruesome story is, in fact, the truth, whereas the version with the animals is merely an allegory. For me, the whole plot is an examination of storytelling itself and how it is relevant to us. This ties in with Pi's love of all religions - each one presents a fascinating story, though none of them are necessarily 'true' in any objective sense. However, any of these religions would be a more pleasant reality than merely believing that the world is cold and useless, despite the fact that that is more than likely true. In this sense, religion is really just another form of storytelling, and storytelling is the greatest tool mankind has to make life a little bit more pleasant. This is why I find the novel (or the film, if it does mirror the book as closely as I'm imagining) to appeal to a much broader audience than some give it credit for. I'm an agnostic-atheist and yet I enjoy the story because it never felt as if it were preaching a religion to me, but merely that faith can be a wonderful thing even if it's not always grounded in reality. If more religious people think it is just preaching the benefits of such faith and that these more pleasant stories actually are true, that's perfectly fine as well - the film is open to interpretation depending on where your beliefs lay.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I have not read the novel, but I did skim through it over the course of writing the review and it appears to follow it very closely.

      I also agree with your interpretation of it as an "examination of storytelling" which I got into in an early draft of the review, but abandoned because it was getting too long.

    • Rahul

      Just saw the film. I agree with your perspective Mason.

  • Newbourne

    I never thought this book preached religion like most people. I think it is quite clear that the book is explaining that these religions are stories created to cover up the ugliness of human nature, just as this story covered up the truth of his journey. It frankly surprises me how most people didn't get that.

  • Ra

    The film would have been nothing if Ang Lee wasn't directing it. kudos to Ang Lee and his technical team for making this film look gorgeous, stunning, and the 3d was really great.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/AS/ AS

    I don't care for these "triumph of the human spirit" type of films so I'll probably just wait for the blu ray.

  • Kimberlesk

    Well thanks, Brad. I was on the fence as to whether to see this or not (mostly because I'm not good with animal deaths) and after reading what you wrote -- I think I'll see it.
    I know, it's weird, I can watch dozens upon dozens of slasher films and the only thing that ever bothers me is when the dog gets it.
    I've been curious about this film ever since I first heard of it. Never read the book -- didn't even know it was a 'beloved book'. The visuals do look well done and after reading the spoilers, I'm sure I'll cry.

  • adu

    I really wanna see it too, it was a great book and most reviews suggest it is a very good movie.

    Always nice to hear that the 3D is being used effectively as well; honestly I wasn't even impressed by the 3D in Avatar. Believe it or not, the movie I noticed 'cool' 3D the most in was in the last Transformers, when they jump out of the plane. Yes, I hate that movie!

  • Badge

    I can't remember the last time I've ever felt so apprehensive or cautious about the filming of a novel that I liked, so I was really relieved to see it done right. It's not often that I would just settle on one word to describe a film, but "wonderful" does it in this case.

  • Kyle M

    I think you severely missed the point at the end there. It's not "open to interpretation". The final dialogue tells us the story with the tiger was an allegory for everything that had occurred. That's not up to the viewers' opinion, that was the twist. You're not supposed to leave wondering whether this story happened or not, you're supposed to leave knowing that the story with the cook was real, but that Pi chose to believe the other one instead. It was his way of coping with reality.

    And no, the movie isn't trying to tell people that we should always disguise our realities with fake stories; it's just showing us how Pi did it.

    And as for God, Pi sums it up at the end when he asks "which story do you prefer [to believe]?" (the "to believe" is implicitly stated in the context of the conversation so I don't understand why it was lost on you). The writer chooses the story with the tiger because it was a more appealing story than the other. The writer is basically saying he would have preferred to never know the ugly truth about what actually happened; he thought the story with the tiger was a good enough representation. "And so the same goes for God" is what Pi replies. They both agree it's better to believe in God because it's simply more appealing to believe in him. They don't need the "truth", the allegory is enough for them.

    I think it's a fantastic film, and although you understood most of it, you seemed to misunderstand exactly what the end was supposed to mean.

    Still though, it was a good review, especially the pre-spoiler part.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      So you're right, I'm wrong and there is no room for differing opinions. Got it. Thanks for your open minded approach to this one-sided discussion it was a lot of fun.

      • Kyle M

        This conversation isn't one-sided, I would be glad to discuss it with you, but you're being a little harsh with your reply there. I don't believe it is closed-minded for me to tell you that the factuality of the second story isn't open to interpretation. It just isn't. Just like you're certain Jack died at the end of Titanic and Spiderman saved the day at the end of Amazing Spiderman, you should be certain that the second story is real and the film is an allegory. I just don't understand why you believe the story was supposed to be left "open to interpretation". What about the ending made you feel that way?

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

          I agree with you it is an allegory, but I have spoken with people that actually believe the tiger story to be true. While I disagree, I don't believe I have the authority to tell them they are wrong.

          I will say I think there is something fascinating to someone believing the tiger story to be the "true" story. That belief could be looked at as naive, optimistic or hopeful. However, I wonder, how sure would you be though had the two Ministry members not asked for a story they could believe?

          • Prasad

            I for one believe the tiger story to be true.

            But one thing they missed in the movie that's there in the book (at least I think it is) is the mention that they couldn't find any tiger in the vicinity where Pi landed.

  • Geoff Jago

    I am confused. Why would a big name actor such as Gerard Depardieu have such a small role in the movie? Did Ang Lee actually film the 'other' story and then leave it on the cutting room floor? Previous articles in 2010 said that Depardieu would play a cannibal in the movie.

    • Älskling

      I thought it was an odd waste of the actor too, but had it been a lesser know actor, that character might not have registered to the viewer as much as he did. It's a memorable scene, to be sure, but Depardieu made it stick out more in my mind.

      There's also the fact that Tobey Maguire was also excised from the film. (I assume he was the sailor with the broken leg.) I wonder if when Pi was relating the second story if the idea was to show some of what happened in the boat with the people. That would have made Depardieu and Maguire's involvement in the film make more sense.

      And had Lee shown us scenes from that second story, would that have affected the way we saw the story with Richard Parker, detracted from it? It might have completely overshadowed the first story it with the reality of what happened. But would that have had a more emotional impact to have seen the harshness the reality contrasted the beauty of the fantasy?

  • neofiles

    I still think a C+ for such a wonderful film is a little harsh. The film maintained a fine balance between the drama and adventure.

    • Älskling

      I couldn't quite put a finger on why the film missed for me after leaving the theater, but I think this review explains it well. It's a gorgeous film and is compelling to watch, but it did leave me feeling like I'd watched a shaggy dog story. It's an interesting, beautifully shot shaggy dong story, but like all those sorts of tales, it ultimately left me wanting and vaguely disapointed.

  • Uriah

    I would have graded the movie a little higher than that. I think Life of Pi was one of the best movies that I’ve seen this year. It’s amazing that they were able to turn a story like this into a beautiful film. Both the story and effects were amazing and I plan on seeing the movie again soon. I’ve added it to my queue on Blockbuster @Home from DISH so as soon as it becomes available on Blu-Ray, it will be sent to my home. It will save me from having to dig it out at the store. I saw the movie with one of my DISH coworkers and we both loved it.

  • http://timeforafilm.com Alex Thomas

    I also gave it a C+ and had major, major issues with the final 25 minutes. I'm so glad I'm not the only one.

    While the visuals were stunning, who cares about that if the movie doesn't finish well and gets no emotion out of you.