Computer-generated imagery can have a softness that reduces the movie screen to a vague blur. Colors blend, figures merge, we’re not sure where one image begins and another ends. Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, is dominated by this pictorial mushiness, and the sensibility seeps into the story as well. Visually, thematically, intellectually – there is nothing sharp about this picture.
Adapted from the Yann Martel novel about a young Indian man who survives a shipwreck only to be stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, Life of Pi clearly means to wow us with its imagery. The 3-D version opens with a hummingbird flitting out from the screen, then offers a series of elegant portraits of various animals at play. (I did like how the credits interacted with the beasts, floating above them or ducking out of their way.) This is a zoo in Pondicherry, India, run by the family of young Pi Patel (Ayush Tandon).
Life of Pi is framed by a conversation between Pi as an adult (Irrfan Khan) and a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who has come to interview him. In the movie’s first, whimsical section, the older Pi recounts his childhood years. We learn that the ever-curious Pi is an earnest collector of various belief systems, much to his mother’s amusement and his irreligious father’s frustration. Dabbling in the texts and practices of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam – with a dash of animism given his life at the zoo – Pi comes to the conclusion that “faith is a house with many rooms.”
This melting-pot faith is tested in the film’s second, and strongest, segment, in which a teenage Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) travels aboard a ship with his family and the zoo’s animals, which they hope to sell in order to start a new life in Canada. A storm hits – the effects are a bit more forceful here, lending the sequence a gripping intensity – and Pi finds himself adrift on a lifeboat with no other human survivors.
This middle section is a whopper of a survival tale, with Pi having to contend not only with starvation and dehydration, but a boat-mate – a gorgeous tiger benignly named Richard Parker – who would just as soon eat him for lunch. Their joint saga held me in thrall, especially when Lee focused on the more elemental aspects of their situation. How would the two mark their territory on the boat? How would they contend with more storms? How – who – would they eat?
Richard Parker is a wondrous creation, all the more so because I could never tell what combination of live action and computer animation was used to bring the animal to life. From its interactions with Pi to the way its fur sadly sags with emaciation as the journey goes on, we never doubt that this is a real, wild creature on the screen. Not so delicate, however, are the movie’s grander, special-effects flourishes: a shot of the placid, pastel sea, in which the glassy water and rosy sky merge; the luminescent creatures who light up the water at night; the psychedelic underwater tour that seems modeled after nothing less than the creation sequence in The Tree of Life. These set pieces are showy, uprooted from any sense of reality and all a blur.
You could say the same of the spiritual thread being woven through the film. For all its references to faith, belief and God, Life of Pi never really offers anything of substance along these lines. Its theology is blurry as well. Even when Pi has a vision of some sort during a lightning storm, we don’t know exactly what that vision is, what it means or how it might relate to Pi’s jambalaya beliefs. The movie doesn’t care. It just wants us to feel that we’ve seen a story about “faith” in some vague way. (In this sense it lacks the very same thing Prometheus did: conviction.)
It’s not as if I’m asking the filmmakers to fulfill a promise they never made. Near the beginning, when the Canadian writer first approaches the adult Pi, he says that he had been told Pi had a story that would “make me believe in God.” What we get does nothing of the sort – whether you’re Hindu, Christian, Muslim or anything else. Life of Pi simply wants to make us believe in belief, a goal that’s as easy on the intellect as the movie’s skies are on the eyes.