Review: Life of Pi (2012)

Warning # 1.  This post contains spoilers. Be advised, however, that the film doesn’t have the uncertainty of a conventional plot: you know from the beginning that the hero will survive his adventure.  No one has to save the world, defeat the bad guys, get revenge, or find true love.  In that sense, there’s little of the usual suspense to spoil.

Warning # 2. Viewers and critics alike (e.g., this review from Richard Corliss in Time, or this one from Roger Ebert) have praised the wonders of film’s 3D effects.  But I saw it in 2D, and parts of the film nearly made me seasick.  So if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, be forewarned.  You don’t want to ruin the experience for yourself.  Or the person sitting in front of you.

That said, director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on the 2001 bestseller by Yann Martel, is a visual triumph, from the uncanny lifelikeness of a computer-generated Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, to the phosphorescent beauty of the worlds that the teenage protagonist, Pi Patel, encounters while lost at sea.

The core of the movie is a tale of shipwreck and survival.  The young Pi’s family, forced to sell their exotic zoo, leaves India on a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada, with the animals in the hold.

A violent storm sinks the ship.  Of the humans aboard, Pi alone survives, and finds himself sharing a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and of course, Richard Parker.  Soon, only Pi and the tiger are left, evolving a brittle relationship of boy and beast.

Surrounding that core is what literary theorists might call a “metafictional” frame, that is, fiction about fiction, a way of telling stories that raises questions about storytelling itself.  The movie unfolds through a series of flashbacks as the adult Pi tells his story to a novelist.  Inside the tale he tells are two competing versions of what happened during his nearly eight months adrift.  There is story inside story inside story, which may be frustrating for those who insist on more straightforward narratives.

At one level, the bulk of the movie seems to provide just that: an adventurous tale of a resourceful boy living by his wits.  But from the opening credits on, the richly-colored visuals inject a note of the surreal, hinting that there will be no hard line drawn between fact and fable.  By the time Pi and Richard Parker discover a mysterious island populated by millions of meerkats (think Timon from The Lion King, minus the voice of Nathan Lane), viewers are left wondering what’s real and what’s not.

When Pi is finally rescued, he has to tell his story to investigators who are trying to determine why the cargo ship sank.  But they don’t want an improbable story populated with tigers and meerkats.  In the novel, Pi tells them:

I know what you want.  You want a story that won’t surprise you.  That will confirm what you already know.  That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.  You want a flat story.  An immobile story.  You want dry, yeastless factuality.

He is voicing the conflict with which the movie began.  As a boy, Pi was an earnest spiritual seeker who pursued Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam simultaneously, while his modernist father urged him to submit his religious passions to the rule of reason.  Years later, Pi finds his own story of survival to be full of wonder, in essence, a story about God.

But it’s not the kind of detached reportage the investigators want or need.  So, sitting upright in his hospital bed, Pi tells them a different story, a story without animals, a gruesome story of survival by murder and cannibalism.  And then he poses the metafictional question: “In both stories the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer. …Which is the better story?”

For some of us, that sounds like the wrong question, an irrelevant question.  We don’t want to know which is the better story, we want to know which is the true story, the one that gives us the facts of what really happened.

When I first prayed to give my life over to Jesus as my Savior, I was told to not expect some grand experience, whether of a warm supernatural glow or a lightning bolt from heaven.  The relationship between fact, faith, and feeling had to kept in the proper order.  The fact of what God had done for us through Jesus Christ was the locomotive that drove the train; faith was to be energized by that fact; and feelings were the unnecessary caboose bringing up the rear.

I think I’d say that differently now.

It’s true that without the historical fact of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the gospel would be an empty shell.  But as discussed in an earlier post, faith also involves personal conviction and trust.  Put differently: we shouldn’t waste our time believing in the gospel if it isn’t true, but faith is more than mere agreement at the level of yeastless factuality.

We give our lives to the story the gospel tells, we learn to inhabit it, because we recognize that it is indeed a better story, a story saturated with the character of God.  Those who see Life of Pi may argue endlessly as to which of Pi’s stories is true, chasing round and round an endless metafictional loop.  That may make for an interesting diversion, but it misses the point.  In the end, the movie and the novel are asking us to make an aesthetic judgment: what is it about a story that makes us want to be part of it?

For the faithful, that means recapturing a sense of deep wonder at the story God tells, and rejoicing in the richness and color that is brought to our own lives thereby.  It’s not just a true story, it’s a better story, the best story of all.

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Update, 2/24/13: Life of Pi took home Oscars for Best Director, Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Music.