Films about God – as opposed to films about organised religion, which usually involve dodgy priests, evil conspiracies or exorcisms gone wrong – can be tricky. They basically put forward the idea that something bigger than us created everything around us, which is fine except that in a movie that is literally true: the characters lives do take place in a world that’s been created by higher beings; those beings being the writer, director and producers. So what to make of Life of Pi, based on the award-winning 2001 novel by Yann Martel about a story that supposedly has the power to make people believe in God?
To be fair, it’s not Pi Patel (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) who makes these big claims for his story. Rather his uncle has told a writer (Rafe Spall) who is suffering from writer’s block that Pi’s story will knock his socks off, and Pi seems more than happy to pass his tale on. Born in a small town in the formerly French part of India, the deeply religious Pi (named after the French swimming pool Piscine Molitor; he shortened it to the number to stop everyone calling him “pissing”) grew up surrounded by animals at his father’s struggling zoo, and when the struggle grew too much, his father put the animals on a cargo steamer and shipped them and his family to Canada. Well, that was his plan; there was a big storm, the ship sank - fans of disaster porn will love the terrifying realism here - and the only human survivor was the now teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma).
As the ship went down the animals broke free, so at first Pi shares his lifeboat with a range of creatures. It turns out one of them hiding under a tarp is Bengal tiger “Richard Parker” (named when the registry confused the tiger’s name with the hunter who captured him), which pretty much spells the end for everyone else. So after a long stretch which was little more than a visually attractive but fairly plodding character study, suddenly the film bursts into life as Pi desperately struggles to come up with a way to survive in an enclosed space with a killing machine capable of disembowelling him with a lazy swipe of its paw.
Taking up much of the middle of the film, this struggle between man and beast is brilliant film-making. This tiger is far from tame and shows no interest in becoming so, and Pi’s constant struggle to come up with a way for them to live side by side on a tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is some of the most compelling storytelling of the year. Whatever this film’s flaws (they’re coming up), this stretch is firmly worth the price of admission.
Director Ang Lee is known for his impressive visuals, and working in digital 3D he’s created a film that clearly sets out to astonish. The rest of this review could be taken up purely with description of the various textures of water on display here, or the range of skies on offer, without touching on the more fantastical sights (floating on stars, a sea full of glowing jellyfish, a breaching whale, a swarm of flying fish). No doubt Lee is searching for the visual equivalent of the original novel’s magic realism, and there are some stunning images here. But they never really stick in the memory the way Pi’s struggles do; a pretty backdrop for a life and death-struggle is still just a pretty backdrop.
More impressive is the largely CGI tiger, who occasionally moves with a fluidity that reveals its computer-generated nature but never looks anything less than completely convincing. There’s no false notes struck with the tiger’s behaviour either, no sense that the movie is in anyway playing less than fair with Pi’s struggle against this extremely convincing big cat. If the film had been content to leave things at this level – a man versus a beast isolated in a hostile but often beautiful environment – we could be talking here about a real classic.
Instead the magic increasingly moves to the fore before an ending that poses a question that strives for profundity but really seems kind of silly. It’s open-ended enough to allow for a variety of interpretations, from the openly religious to the slyly mocking, which is a small relief but still: it’s a bit much for a fictional movie based on a fictional novel to make the kind of claims this does at its conclusion. Ironically, if this really wanted to be a searching look at the way human beings interact with God, it handled all that much more intelligently back with the tiger on the lifeboat. If being faced with the on-going reality of your imminent death doesn’t focus your mind on the big questions, nothing will.