Life of Pi: An Allegory, or rather, a ‘Tell-egory’

(Still taken from the wonderful site

Life of Pi (2012)
Directed by Ang Lee
Screenplay by David Magee
127 min.

Disclaimer: No, I haven’t read the book, and I understand full well that there are probably differences between the book and the movie, and that I would possibly ‘understand’ more about the story the movie tries to tell if I’d read the book.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I could not talk about the Oscar winner for Visual Effects without first bitching about its visual effects, but I’ll try to keep it short, as my thoughts on VFX have already been made clear enough. Basically, the CG in Life of Pi is certainly impressive, no doubt. More than once, I went back and paused on frames to gawk at the insane level of detail they crammed into the animals, which are animated with eye-popping fluidity. They may be too fluid, however, because I found myself slipping in the uncanny valley here and there—the most jarring moments being when footage of an actual tiger is juxtaposed with a CG tiger in quick succession. By and large though, the omnipresence of CG animals isn’t too bothersome. It’s integrated into the physical set well enough that it usually feels like it’s really there.

More annoying is the sometimes blatant use of chromakeying. Life of Pi takes place on the open ocean, but occasionally it’s obvious Suraj Sharma is just standing in front of a blue screen, and we are reminded that he’s acting in a vacuum. Other times, way too much shit is going on at once. For instance: the part where the ship the family is on sinks during a hellish thunderstorm, and Pi escapes to a lifeboat. I guess it wasn’t enough to have him watch the ship go down from afar, a la Titanic or something. Instead, they thrust his lifeboat through the rigging and catwalks above the ship’s deck as the ship is going under. The movie turns into a roller coaster ride at that moment, and emotional impact vanishes.

But, for every ugly image the movie shows, there’s another that’s simply striking. The bird’s eye shot of Pi hanging onto the lifeboat’s bowsprit, watching as the ship’s lights go out beneath him, is absolutely awesome. And in general, the shots are huge and wide and graceful. Life of Pi would not have been my pick to win the Cinematography and Visual Effects Oscars, as the quality of each are way too variable, but if there’s one aspect of this movie I would recommend it on, it’s the visual. (For the record, I’d have picked Amour for Cinematography and Prometheus for Visual Effects.)

The real issue with the movie is the befuddled framing of the story. Again, I haven’t read the book, but here’s how the movie is set up—basically, the actual story begins around the 30 minute mark, and ends a little over an hour later. The movie’s just over two hours long, and roughly 50 minutes of it is taken up by expository narration, unnecessary bookends, and self-analysis. The first ‘act’ is all backstory. An old Pi is visited by an unnamed novelist (gee, I wonder who that could be) who has heard that Pi has a story that will “make [him] believe in God”. Instead of telling that specific story, Pi begins telling him his entire life story. What follows is a solid half hour’s worth of isolated vignettes, narrated quite literally, each relating various aspects of Pi’s character. Unfortunately, as is always the case with lazy structuring of this nature, we end up with a protagonist who has a lot of traits, but almost no actual personality. Pi is ‘religiously curious’ simply because Pi tells us so—we never really feel that curiosity. The dialogue in these vignettes is hamfisted and awkward, especially the family roundtable discussion on religion vs. reason. It’s facepalmingly simplistic and stiff. By the time we get to the actual story, which begins on the ship that will take Pi’s family from India to Canada to start a new life, it’s easy to understand Pi’s history, but it’s impossible to get a sense of him as a human being, and so, it’s hard to give a shit when his life is torn asunder. Anything I feel for him when the ship sinks is solely a result of the grand production and emotional score. (I guess that’s a credit to the movie’s production values.)

Remember the ever-important storytelling axiom, “show, don’t tell”? The first act of Life of Pi fails hard in that respect. It does nothing but ‘tell’. But once we’re on the lifeboat with Pi and the few animals that made it from the ship, the movie pulls a 180: old Pi stops narrating, and finally, we can sit back and watch the movie. And it quickly becomes pretty good. At times it’s even riveting. The whole middle sequence of the movie plays out like an old-fashioned adventure. We get Pi and the tiger on the lifeboat, learning to survive and, eventually, get along. There are sequences of beauty and mystery and wonder. Everything ‘clicks’—save for one horribly stupid sequence in which Pi stares into the water on a starry night and experiences some sort of spiritual epiphany. It would have been much more convincing if he’d only seen the crushing blackness below, but apparently, such revelations come in the form of a psychedelic explosion of computer-animated animals that looks like a cheap 90’s computer screensaver.

This section culminates in the lifeboat making landfall on a bizarre island that’s made entirely of vegetative material and occupied by thousands of nonchalant meerkats. Then things get glow-y and mystical and macabre. It’s nighttime, and all the meerkats have scurried into the trees, while the tiger has decided to sleep on the boat. Pi doesn’t understand what’s going on, so he makes his bed in a tree and climbs in. The island is glowing green from bioluminescent algae. Pi looks down from his bed into a deep pool of water, and watches as dozens of skeletons float to the surface. He notices a glowing flower on the tree that’s closed its petals. He takes it down, peels away the leaves, and stares dumbfounded at a half-digested human tooth at the center. This strangeness excited me, and for the first time in the movie, I was beginning to wonder what was actually going on.

But then the movie pulls the rug out from under us. It suddenly cuts back to the nondescript novelist and old Pi sitting in a living room. The adventure is over—yet there’s still nearly a half-hour to go in the movie. Almost immediately, the characters launch into in the most banal auto-deconstruction I have ever experienced in a piece of fiction.

It would take a fool not to recognize that the story old Pi tells of his adventure on the raft is allegorical to some degree. A good story would have left that up to us. A bad story would have made it too obvious. Life of Pi goes a few steps further, and literally (and I mean literally) analyzes itself, right there on screen.

Old Pi tells the novelist that nobody believed his lifeboat story. We get several (too many) minutes of a flat shot of young Pi sitting in a hospital bed after his rescue, as he retells the story to two Japanese insurance investigators, and this time it’s the ‘real’ version. The animals on the lifeboat were his family and ship workers, and like the animals in the fantastical version, they tore each other apart. The novelist explicitly breaks it down for us once this version of the story is finished: “The zebra was the sailor, the hyena was the cook. Your mother is the orangutan, and you’re… the tiger.” Gee, thanks! I could have put two and two together, but okay. And it doesn’t stop there. Pi explains: “I’ve told you two stories… nobody can prove which story is true or not… so which story do you prefer?” The novelist replies: “The one with the tiger… that’s the better story.” And then Pi delivers the philosophical punchline: “And so it goes with God”. (Didactic much?) As if that weren’t enough, there’s a final little insult to the intelligence of the audience: the movie quick cuts back to the novelist, who looks down, and gives a little knowing smile. I wanted to punch the screen.

You see, the novelist isn’t a character. He’s a microphone, a prop for Pi to talk at. If the novelist weren’t there, I bet Pi would have just broken the fourth wall and told us directly what to think. The novelist also functions as a built-in audience. How he reacts is how the audience is expected to react. That little shot of the novelist smiling represents him (us) giving in and accepting the message being sold. This is a movie (and/or book) that has so little faith in its audience that it interprets itself and draws conclusions for us. This is beyond didacticism—it’s transparent propaganda.

I understand that, as the saying goes, all artists are propagandists. But the only good lessons are the ones we learn for ourselves. All the ambiguous and symbolic elements should have been left alone, because any value in them was robbed from us when the movie made up our minds for us. And just so we’re clear, it’s not the message of the movie I have a problem with—it’s the presentation. I’m an Atheist (and soon to be Real Life Scientist) but I actually approve of and encourage the movie’s (and book’s?) message. But I do not approve of the movie itself.

If you want to enjoy some quality quasi-religious storytelling, I encourage you to check out some of my favorite things ever: Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring and 3-Iron, Yoshitoshi ABe’s Haibane Renmei, and the animated adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad. Those are ambiguous, strange, engaging, beautiful stories with undertones that are (probably?) religious—but they are left totally open to interpretation, making them both a hundred times more memorable than Life of Pi.

2 out of 5 spoiled metaphors.

One thought on “Life of Pi: An Allegory, or rather, a ‘Tell-egory’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *