Regardless of what one thinks of director Ang Lee’s films regarding their thematic and narrative qualities, it’s difficult to argue that, visually, his films are nothing short of astounding. He knows exactly what type of mood and tone he wants to evoke and perfectly captures it onscreen in a way that few directors can. From the smooth, stylish action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the tranquility of Brokeback Mountain, Lee sets a goal and nails it every time. His latest, Life of Pi, is no different. It’s a colorful, magical, frequently beautiful looking film that can be interpreted as either a fairy tale come to life or a nightmare one wants to forget. It’s not the best nor the most involving movie in the world—its story will rarely, if ever, grab you emotionally—but its breathtaking visuals will bring a tear to your eye.
The film begins with a writer (Rafe Spall) interviewing an adult who, because his name sounded too much like “pissing,” goes by Pi (Irrfan Khan). The writer has been told that Pi has a story for him, one so astounding that it will make him believe in God. His story begins like any other, an innocent child living his day to day life trying to make friends and avoid the heckling brought on by his name, but it eventually goes to places the writer doesn’t expect. While on a ship, he and those on board encounter a massive storm and the ship begins to sink. On this ship are all the animals his family is transporting to be sold from their zoo they just abandoned, most of which drown with the ship. A few of them escape their fate, however, and end up on a lifeboat with Pi, including a hungry tiger named Richard Parker (the tiger and tiger owner’s names were switched on the paperwork and the name stuck) who Pi simultaneously tries to evade and help survive.
There’s a bit more to Life of Pi than that, including an undiscovered carnivorous island and a twist that makes you rethink everything you just saw, but the bulk of the movie takes place in the middle of the ocean with Pi and Richard Parker. These scenes, though frightening and seemingly hopeless, manage to bring forth a transcendental beauty. Because of the isolation such an event causes, much time is focused on the things around Pi and Richard Parker, including the abundant sea life beneath them, expressed perhaps most profoundly when what appears to be thousands of luminous jellyfish swim below, lighting up an otherwise dark and dreary night. These moments recall Pi’s spirituality, his believe in some type of higher power (he’s a Catholic-Hindu-Muslim who teaches the Kabbalah at the university, after all) and they bring forth the wonder of the world around him, even when he’s faced with a dire situation.
For those who also share an interest in religious ideologies, the story of Abraham from the Bible will come forth clearest. When that ship went down, Pi lost his entire family, everything and everyone he has ever loved, and now he’s in an inescapable predicament, one that is bound to bring certain death. His faith is tested, but rarely wavers. Whether the events that follow are seen as coincidence or divine intervention will depend on your interpretation of the story, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder, even if the comparison to the biblical story is a bit too on the nose.
Where Life of Pi simply misses the mark is in its strange desire to stretch this middle section of the movie out to unbearable lengths. Although it may be one of the most visually pleasing movies you’ll see all year, it’s also one of the most uneventful. It’s a movie that manages to capture your imagination and then do nothing with it. There are only so many times you can scare us with a close encounter from Richard Parker or amaze us with the sea life that suddenly appears. Cynical though it may be, Life of Pi fails to tighten up its story and misses the opportunity to let the wonderment it naturally builds linger to the end, instead allowing it to dissipate far too early.
Life of Pi is nevertheless a good movie, one that deserves to be seen, but is different enough that it will most likely be ignored by the general populace. Despite the feeling that it’s sometimes on a road to nowhere, a stunningly gorgeous, life affirming film like this is preferable to your standard Hollywood fare any day.
Life of Pi receives 3.5/5