Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain and Gerard Depardieu
Running time: 127 Minutes
Release: 20th December
Survivalist stories appeal to that primal part of us that wonders just what we would do if it all got down to canned non-perishables. Would we be Robinson Crusoe, or one of William Golding’s schoolboys, or the dad from The Road? Now that we really are living in the end times, there’s an even bigger incentive; we want to know what to do when the apocalypse comes, Mayan-predicted or otherwise. Will we make meals out of friends and loved ones, or just kneel down and pray?
Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is an Indian émigré living in Ontario. A Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) has come to visit—he’s in search of a story that, he’s been told, will make him believe in God. Pi describes his youth in Pondicherry, a former French territory in south India. His father owns a zoo, and, in these earlier sequences, director Ang Lee can’t help but take advantage of this setup and embellish it with every silly little magical realist quirk you can think of. Religion enters things quickly—Pi practices many faiths, and even Pi the elder professes a Catholic Hinduism (“I get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods”). Pi’s father calls this spiritual laziness, he’s a self-described champion of reason, and Hollywood likes its rationalists arrogant.
Things move briskly along, and you get the sense that Lee wants to get to the long middle section—the bit on the poster—as quickly as possible. The family, and all the animals, are suddenly on a freighter bound for Canada. There’s a huge storm, the boat sinks, and soon Pi (now aged 16, played with considerable charm by Suraj Sharma) is alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
Sharma’s wide-eyed performance, the undeniable weightiness of the computer-generated tiger and a prodigious sense of the pure possibilities of camera angle and depth of field afforded by the transparent Pacific are what save these scenes from visual claustrophobia. And there’s now a large body of water between us and the whimsy of the film’s earlier section; we’re in the middle of a survival story, and it’s hard not to be fascinated. The ocean scenes are monotonous in a hypnotic sort of way, punctuated in perfect rhythm by moments of weirdness or gorgeousness—a whale breaching into night time phosphorescence, lightning on the water, a strange anthropomorphic island.
Pi’s mistake was to use his faith lazily; the moral of both book and film, something like ‘believe in God because it’s nicer,’ washes not at all. Beyond the lifeboat scenes, Life of Pi has little to recommend it. The combination of virtuoso visuals, naïve theology and a trip-you-up ending makes watching Pi like watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. You’ll be gripped, but you’ll leave the cinema with no profounder insight than the best way to brain a fish once you’ve reeled it in.