There’s something terribly thrilling about a character stranded in a lifeboat, adrift on the perpetual sea. It’s a simple device, yet it contains the potential for all manner of tragedies and comedies, and so often with a necessarily limited number of characters to play out the action. Inside of these stories, the paltry refuge of a lifeboat becomes a metaphor for the world at large, and the characters within tend to serve as archetypes of our basest motives. The idea present in nearly all of these stories is simple: only when we are faced with our own mortality can we come to truly know ourselves. While this notion isn’t unique to the “lifeboat” story, it is rarely depicted with such purity. In Life of Pi, this conceit bears up most of the film, pitting the titular Pi against a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, as they cling to life and hope, and to each other.
Piscine Molitor Patel (Suraj Sharma)–known simply as Pi–is a boy on a quest for truth. As a child he adopts religions like stuffed animals, choosing elements of each over the entirety of one. When Pi is a teenager, his father decides the time has come to leave India behind, along with their family zoo, and the menagerie they’ve come to love. On their way to Canada, the boat meets a massive, almighty storm, and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the zoo’s Bengal tiger, surrounded by horizons. While the situation itself is plenty harrowing, it is made even more so by the hungry, choleric tiger and their cramped confines. Pi recognizes that feeding the tiger is the only thing keeping him from becoming tiger food, and exhausts himself seeing to their shared well being. A constant foraging that provides Pi an endurance he might not have otherwise, and in turn shelters him from despair. In a simple twist of fate, Pi’s ferocious enemy becomes the most important friend he will ever have.
Similarly to 2011’s Hugo, Life of Pi blurs the line between adult and children’s fare, juxtaposing real existential crisis with an adolescent protagonist and cheerful palette. Unlike Hugo, there’s far less line-riding as Pi progresses. What begins with a borderline Disney-fied prologue ends in an awfully dark place, and this progression leaves you feeling disoriented. This has a good deal to do with the film’s conclusion, which is at once powerful and puzzling. It is the film’s grand reveal, a revelation that plays out like a riddle. A riddle which, yes, can be unlocked, but one that also seems to suggest that there can be parallel versions of truth, or that the absolute truth doesn’t matter. While this certainly qualifies as an interesting notion, it isn’t exactly infallible.
Keeping the film afloat is the direction from Ang Lee, whose confidence in creating this occasionally anagogic world is felt in every frame. Similar to, again, Martin Scorcese and Hugo, much of Ang Lee’s motivation seems borne of his first foray into 3D, with at least a few moments composed entirely to show off the technology. These moments aren’t distracting, and in general the 3D is subdued enough to be almost forgettable, but there’s a visual alchemy at the heart of every moment that feels like nothing so much as inspiration; particularly the sequence wherein the family’s shipping vessel sinks, and Pi finds himself alone in the midst of a biblical storm. Without diminishing the terror of the reality, Lee composes an almost entirely CGI spectacle of extraordinary scale, guaranteed to leave you breathless. It’s clear throughout the film that Ang Lee is eager to create arresting visual moments, and in the midst of weaving a considerable tale, he does so expertly.
Whether or not this tale makes its way into your heart is another matter. Despite the dexterous direction, despite the visual journey, despite even the strong performance from Sharma, Life of Pi simply didn’t grab hold of me the way it should have. A lazy script with far too much narration and pointed exposition could certainly be the culprit, though my apathy feels more nebulous than any one problem. This simply feels like a film that doesn’t have much going on behind the eyes. Allegories can be wildly effective when handled the right way, but they can just as quickly leave you feeling deceived and frustrated. In this case, for this reviewer, Life of Pi resulted in the latter.