LIFE OF PI: Visual Splendor and Spiritual Hunger

Life of Pi begins in a magical, animal kingdom in Pondicherry, India.    Birds and monkeys flight through the trees is especially vivid in 3D.   The seamless blend of real animals and digital replicas makes us sit back and relax, confident we are in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  Director Ang Lee staged magical moments in his Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  The crouching tiger in Life of Pi is also Oscar worthy.   He commands our attention, a tribute to the visual effects artists at Rhythm & Hues who recreated him.   Life of Pi is a luxurious film, definitely made for the big screen.  But will the story adapted by screenwriter David Magee keep us coming back, mining the narrative for new layers?   As with Titanic and Avatar before it, I lament that Life of Pi will ultimately be viewed as a visual breakthrough that doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings.   The digital luster may fade over time.

Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, Life of Pi, boldly promises a story that will make us believe in God.   Like the book, the movie mixes sacred mythologies, with Catholic guilt placed alongside the universe contained in Krishna’s mouth.  The young Pi inhabits an enchanted universe where gods are his superheroes.  His nascent interest in each religion he encounters is played mostly for laughs, rather than as a serious inquiry into the nature of the universe.     As Pi incorporates elements of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam into his practices, he is derided for his religious syncretism as a ‘Swami Jesus.’   His father suggests, “Believing in everything equals nothing.”  He challenges Pi to think rationally.   If faith is a house with many rooms, doubt resides on every floor.   So does Life of Pi add up to something?

Life of Pi is set up to chronicle how a young, naïve faith responds to the ultimate test.   When nature tosses tragedy your way, how will you respond?   Pi is challenged by a deadly storm and tragic shipwreck, but his life lessons are mostly delivered by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.    This imaginative adventure story posits big questions about the nature of the soul.   Pi believes that even ferocious animals like a ravenous tiger have souls.  Ubiquitous ads already revealed that a massive storm lands Pi in a life raft with Richard Parker.   Life of Pi isn’t about plot per se, but how we handle the twists that life throws at us. The sinking of the ship is riveting, definitely on par, if not exceeding Titanic’s intensity.   Pi has no time to grieve the loss of his family.  He plunges into survivor mode immediately.  Life of Pi demonstrates how a boy becomes a man, hardened by harsh realities.    An early romantic subplot is tossed aside, never to return.

It is a shipwreck story rooted in desert island classics like Robinson Crusoe.   Remarkable ingenuity is necessary for Pi to stay alive.   As in Swiss Family Robinson, Pi jerry-rigs several contraptions to secure precious food and water.    At any moment, the Darwinism that drives Lord of the Flies could devour Pi.   First time actor, Suraj Sharma, makes such a compelling Pi.   His feral drive exceeds the full-bodied acting of Tom Hanks in Cast Away.   While battling nature, Pi must keep his wits about him.  We feel every bit of the anxiety and exhilaration that must have accompanied a journey like the Kon-Tiki.  A nighttime sequence involving bioluminescent jellyfish enchants.    Another day of desperation is interrupted by a massive catch of flying fish.  Life of Pi is bold, bright, and fanciful—what they used to call a ‘ripping yarn.’  I am so glad to see Fox take a chance on this picture.

While many will be satisfied by the visual spectacle, others may find the final third of the film disconcerting.    Director Ang Lee largely dodges the religious issues raised in the set up of the movie.    Perhaps the cost of the all the effects made a spiritual allegory too risky to address head on.   Skeptical viewers may find it too preachy, while believers may find it too loose with its interpretation.   The filmmakers thread a volatile needle, allowing viewers to interpret the story in multiple ways.  It can be seen as an argument for God or as an illustration of how the postmodern era encourages us to construct our own truths. 

Life of Pi offers a tribute to the power of story.  It chronicles how we mark time and order our lives through narrative.    Absolutely, we do choose which stories to believe.  But Life of Pi never creates a hierarchy, arguing why one story is more true or worthy of our faith.   Real interfaith dialogue begins by carefully studying the various belief systems, not merely sampling them like intriguing buffet items.   Like Pi, we are left a bit adrift, potentially unsatisfied.    The splendor of flying fish and enchanted islands is worth the price of admission.   But to really earn our devotion, Life of Pi must demand a greater emotional investment and offer a deeper spiritual reward.   We are teased by answers that fail to materialize.  And while that could be defended as a mature artistic decision to leave the choice with viewers, after such an arduous and imaginative cinematic journey, we want the filmmaker to plant a flag, make a decision, lead us a bit more.  Life of Pi is ravishingly beautiful.   And that is a commendable reward.   But is it enough?  Not for this hungry viewer.

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is a filmmaker, author, and cultural commentator who has been featured on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ABC's Nightline and in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He blogs as "Doc Hollywood" for Patheos.com.

  • Lisa

    Does it ask the questions? That to me is more important than having a pre-fab answer. Ask the questions, provoke the viewer, the reader the listener to find the answers. Lead a little, yes. But not impose conclusions…

    • craigdetweiler

      Most the time I’d agree with that, Lisa. Maybe it is the arduousness of Pi’s journey that left me wanting a bit more payoff. The ending could be perceived as profound. But for a cinematic experience, it felt a bit too easy, closer to a cop out than a conclusion. I’d be glad if it appears deeper and more prescient over time. But I’m afraid our feelings about the film may just dissipate….

  • postcardkid

    The ending betrayed me (and the heart of the film). I gave my heart, tears, and wonder to Pi’s story, allowing it to affirm my faith and the life quest and questions I hold dear, only to have the filmmakers pat me on tbe head in yhe end and tell me it wasn’t the truth, that it was just a story I made up to cover the truth and make myself and others happy. Read that way, the film OFFENDS the very faiths it seems to work so hard to affirm. I’ve only seen it once, but as it feels like a face slap now, I’m not sure Ill go back to turn the other cheek. I’m angry. One of the reasons these faiths have the power they do in their believers’ lives is because they believe the story to be truth — it’s not just a fictional band-aid on life.

    • craigdetweiler

      Dear Postcard,
      You’ve done a much better job of articulating my discomfort with the ending. While I can affirm all the splendor leading up to it, the conclusion fails to satisfy because it says “We all just tell ourselves stories as a coping mechanism.” That feels like a cop out especially after you spend $100 million on special effects as a prelude. Is that really what the author and filmmakers believe? If so, that is an awfully weak reason to make movies. I’d expect people to create out of larger set of core convictions….


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