There is no denying, director Ang Lee’s adventure movie “Life of Pi” is something of a masterpiece—at least, on a technical and visual level. The movie is a wonder of visual effects and a testament to how computer graphics can enhance the moviegoing experience. Its use of 3-D is so elegant that once the adventure sets in, you forget you’re wearing big clunky glasses, even though you’re still conscious of how the 3-D aids in the telling of the story, how the extra dimension draws your gaze to Lee’s often majestic, sometimes harrowing images of nature’s raw beauty. But despite the movie’s visual bravura, it still suffers from a questionable moral message and a tedious first act. In the end, “Life of Pi” ends up being about something entirely different from what it intends to be. This shouldn’t be too discouraging though, considering how wildly entertaining the majority of the movie is.
“Life of Pi” begins with the main character, Pi Patel, and his family in Pondicherry, India. Pi’s family owns a zoo, but due to various circumstances, they are forced to give up their life in Pondicherry and sail for Canada, bringing along with them some of the more valuable animals to sell later on. After a horrifying shipwreck, Pi, the lone human survivor, finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a bengal tiger—humorously named Richard Parker and brought to terrifying life by state-of-the-art visual effects—somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Much of the movie concerns how Pi and Richard Parker sort of learn to live with each other after a series of power plays during which Pi nearly loses his life. The simplicity of Pi’s predicament tests the strength of the human spirit in the face of its own existential insignificance, as seen through the movie’s dazzling images.
In one scene, the Pacific Ocean glows a translucent neon blue, turning the grandeur of the sea into a window that offers an unobstructed view of strange and beautiful creatures at which to gaze in awe. The scene itself starts as nothing more than visual splendor, but it very quickly borders on the transcendent when a gigantic whale emerges from the ocean’s depths into a dive so indifferent to its surroundings that the end result is a haunting sequence representative of nature’s attitude toward humankind. The movie works best during these types of sequences, and not during its overt attempt to arbitrarily attach meaning to itself by way of a narrative framing device through which adult Pi tells his story to a struggling writer.
Pi relates his adventure with a smug and sanctimonious religiosity that is so general yet so pious, it ultimately comes off as a bit preachy. Because of this, when all is said and done, we’re not sure if Pi has survived because of his love for life, or because of his powers of self-delusion. If “Life of Pi” is about anything at all, then it is unintentionally about how easily the right blend of storytelling and traumatic experience can shape our worldview, for good or for ill, despite the fact that the movie is clearly trying to say something else, whatever that may be.
The real feat at the heart of “Life of Pi” is how director Ang Lee finds a balance between pure aesthetic pleasure and the hostility of nature. Not in one scene does the movie vaguely suggest that the wild is a desirable place to be, however visually beautiful it has been rendered.