Mon
Nov 26 2012 11:00am

Are You There God? It’s Me, Tiger. Life of Pi

A review of LIFE OF PI

It’s impossible to sit through the entirety of Life of Pi and not get a little weepy. It’s no spoiler that the majority of the plot centers on a 16-year-old boy who is stranded in the nowhere part of the middle of the ocean in a small boat with only a boy-eating Bengal Tiger as his companion. This is riveting material to be sure, and the sort of high-concept daring notion that made the novel upon which the film is based so popular. In theory, this is why we go to the movies. Emotion! Danger! Family drama! The big questions! TIGERS! Life of Pi is a beautiful, moving and (somewhat) original film. And yet, despite everything it has going for it, thematically it proves just as murky as the waters upon which Pi and Richard Parker the Tiger float.

SPOILERS AHEAD.

Leaving out the standard book versus film debate, Life of Pi’s themes are essentially the same as its source material. If we tell untrue stories to comfort ourselves and those stories are preferable, does that really make them untrue? Narrating from a comfortable (and alive) position in the somewhat present, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells a writer (Rafe Spall) the incredible story of his life. So, far, no surprises. Here’s Pi, this is his life. To keep things simple: Pi’s family owned a zoo in India, one which they were forced to relocate on a ship, which tragically sank, leaving only Pi and a handful of animals as survivors. 16-yeard old Pi (Saraj Sharma) is a multi-faith guy, attempting to connect to God through Hinduism, Islam, and Catholicism. Presumably, Richard Parker the Tiger has no religion.

Out of this narrative comes the majority of the movie. Storms come and knock Pi and Richard Parker around. Sometimes the storms seem worse than the previous, sometimes these are storms of flying fish. Other times, giant sea creatures mess everything up by knocking over the boat. Pi has to figure out not only how to survive, but how to train Richard Parker not to eat his face off. The main very cool notion here is that Pi’s fear of Richard Parker is what helps organize his survival routines. The Tiger’s ferocity keeps him alive.

A review of LIFE OF PI

Pi talks to God a great deal in the film, sometimes thanking God, other times asking to be taken. When Pi and Richard Parker arrive at a carnivorous, almost Homer-esque island, it seems that God has forsaken them and they eventually move on, together. Because Pi is the every-person with his multiple religions, the spiritual themes of the film aren’t really “preachy,” but just sort of there. You can’t get away with pretending there’s no symbolism in Life of Pi, mostly because it’s just so damn symbolic and referential. I’m not rocking the boat by mentioning the obvious similarities to Hemingway or Melville here. The literary borrowing and homaging amounts to a big old “no duh” at the end of the day. But what does it all mean?

Towards the end of the film what can only be referred to as “the big twist” occurs. Pi’s story of Richard Parker and a few of the other animals was perhaps a fiction, invented by a young boy to help him cope with a more tragic series of events. In the other, briefer account, human atrocities dominate the life boat, complete with a crazy cook using people for bait and Pi witnessing his mother’s death. The Richard Parker story, then, becomes a giant metaphor for Pi’s near loss of humanity out on the ocean. And it’s here where the film falters a bit. There’s something almost too on-the-nose about the big themes of the movie at this point. The most simple one being: stories are necessary for our emotional survival. And in this way, Pi’s multiple beliefs are much like the storytelling skills of fiction writers: all designed to comfort and protect.

And yet, the adult Pi says something wonderful which sort of contradicts it all. When a character called “The Writer” asks what it all means, the older Pi responds “If it happened, why does it have to mean anything?” I loved this, but it totally destroys the rest of the movie’s hit-you-over-the-head symbolism and spiritual musings. It’s as though the film felt guilty about being so obvious that it felt it necessary to back off, and leave something to the imagination. Filmmaker and author Nicholas Meyer famously said “The problem with cinema is that it does it all for you.” Meaning, as a filmmaker, Meyer was always looking for ways to hold back.

A review of LIFE OF PI

Ang Lee is certainly not that sort of filmmaker. I’ll not insult anyone’s intelligence by saying Life of Pi is visually awesome. But really, this is where the Meyer quote is so important. Because Life of Pi the movie is doing it all for us, showing us this magically riveting world, it can’t take it all away so glibly in the end like that. In the novel (or any novel, really) this kind of thing works a little better, because the mind is doing so much work already. Magical realists like Stephen Millhauser can beautifully erase characters from the page and we accept it, because prose is a different art-form from cinema. Prose can have secrets. It can get away with murder on the sentence level.

But I’m not sure a film like this can. It’s one thing to freak us out and make us cry with beautiful and startling imagery of a boy and his tiger. It’s another thing to glibly assert that everything you just watched was totally made up. To put it another way: if a movie grabs a tiger by its tail, it should hold onto that damn tiger throughout the whole thing.

And above all, it should let that tiger be real. Metaphors are like jokes. They’re not fun when you explain them. And this is one tiger who deserved to be explained a little less.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

14 comments
Jerun
1. Jerun
I watched this movie today and when I came out, I was speechless. Not because the movie had that effect on me. But because of what happened at the end. It left me wondering about the same points which you have correctly mentioned here. Why flirt with faith and spirituality throughout when you could just take it all away in one sentence at the end? It is simple doing that in a novel, yes. But when a movie which has captivated you throughout does it, you feel cheated.

P.S: The movie was still awesome. :)
Jerun
2. piIsNonRepeating
I was baffled that someone wanted to make a movie out of this. The book taking that "big twist" left a serious foul taste in my mouth, and while a striking point, is hardly something that I would want to watch.

As to your uncomfortableness with the movie meaning nothing, um, I think that's kinda the point. None of this story means anything if it is not about a tiger, other than sadness and horror. Grasping for meaning where there is none, where something can't be explained, that's what real life is like sometimes. You obviously prefer your escapes from reality to remain outside reality, but then, poor choice of movies to watch.
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
If you include an unreliable narrator, then include a bit where someone is like "oh here is the truth behind the unreliable narrator," doesn't that...entirely spoil the fun?
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@1 Jerun
The movie was awesome in the sense of it left me in awe! Beautiful!

@2 I think that's a bit harsh. I like realistic movies and movies that blend reality with fantasy. Just to put it another way: in the novel the "twist" barely works, but it doesn't feel like a deus ex machina, even though it kind of is. In the movie, the deus ex machina problem is greater. I'm arguing that visual nature of the film could have actually left out "the twist" and we would have still sensed a "deeper truth." In short, the symbols were already pretty neat, and in a movie, I'm not sure I need everything explained.
Jerun
5. James Moar
mordicai @ 3: But for a narration to be read as unreliable, there needs to be a tipoff that it may not be the actual truth of the story, whether that involves bringing in a full objective account or (as in Life of Pi) only questioning the truth of the narrative.
Chelsea Rash
6. Crashwriter
On the twist: I can buy the whole "journey with a tiger" as a fiction created by a traumatized boy...I just wish it wasn't employed as a twist ending. If the audience is clued in from the start that Pi-with-tiger is metaphorical, it might feel like less of a gotcha at the end.

All the hype about the movie (it's a BOY in a BOAT with a TIGER!) treats that narrative as an amazing true story, which only sets it up for a letdown. The twist worked for The Sixth Sense because the audience knew something spooky was going on throughout the film. Life of Pi seems more like a blindside.

On meaning: It may be true that stories don't have to mean anything, but *good* stories mean something to their audience (even if it's just pure entertainment value.) If Ryan felt cheated of meaning at the end of the movie, something in the storytelling is not working well.
Jerun
7. Ozge
Well, if you feel cheated by a movie, I wonder how cheated you will feel with the actual reality that there is no God.
I think this is the main issue: Everyone knows which story is the truth, it just doesn't matter. You don't believe in God because God actually exists, you prefer to believe in God.
I liked the movie just for this reason: It shows religion/belief as a preference. Just a preference you stick to, although the "truth" is already known. This is the only reasonable ground to stand with God (religions). Like the creationism story, we all know the fossils are real, we all know evolution is the truth, there is no reasonable ground in believing Earth was formed in 7 days or all humans were born out of Adam and Eve. But some people may "prefer" to believe in so..
As the multi-religious character of Pi also tries to explain, whichever way you choose to gather a meaning out of the actual truth, is just a preference.
It doesn't discuss which religion is the "true" one. It considers belief as a way to cope with reality, a tool to make the actual sad, horrorful reality be filled with color and beauty.
You choose the story you prefer to believe. That's why the movie has to reveal the truth as an obivous fact.
The movie doesn't want us to be twisted between 2 stories, the movie wants us to decide which one we "prefer" knowing what the "truth" is.
Do we prefer the reality or do we prefer the tale?
"and so it goes with God."
Jerun
8. Lasita-angel
There is a 3rd story being told. I like how the question is asked " what story did you like." That is the question given to the audience also. The story we want to believe, need to believe, is the story we will believe. . The third story is told in the water, in the tiger's eyes, in Pi's eyes, in the cover over the lifeboat, and the way the tiger exits and enters. It is also in the events that proceeded the shipwreck. It is a spiritual journey that parallels His life survival story.
Jerun
9. MC_Poppasquat
Here's the thing, I you study other religions besides Christianity, they are completely different. A lot of Christians have to have an end result in their religion, but if you look at Hinduism or Muslim or Zen Buddhism, it's not always about the end result, it's about the journey. So at the en of the movie, that quote about why does it have to have meaning, is valid. The journey happened, why does it matter what happens after? You don't need to have a why for everything in our lives. You just need to accept the things that are given to you.
Jerun
10. Donny Duke
Spiritual Will
Had Its Will

Richard Parker,
He’s the lineman.
Hey I need you.
You’re somethin’
Rock the boat,
A little patrol of safety
From the most dangerous thing of all,
What keep me on my toes
Till the morning come.
Put ‘im beside your bed.
You grow strength that way.

Never a release from the tiger.
I’m not lyin’.
Among other things
You show it rules to obey
It will learn them.
Boy mustn’t get too carried away.
The moment of mastery has arrived.
A friendship now it knows you.
Take him to salt.
He’s your challenger no more.
It’s your moment past him.
Something bigger,
Bigger than life even,
Is your next movie.
Can’t a cheetah do it,
Make on earth reveal God.

Richard Parker,
Thank you Richard Parker.
I must’ve been asleep.
This symbolism gown,
This gonna cost yah.
You make them wear veils
What you’d reach for wrong.
I skipped a generation,
Let it come in for school.
After a good many trials and tribulations
I reached my way North.

Now what did Life of Pi
Have to teach us?
You know,
I wanna tell you somethin’.
What?
You thought you just winked right out of there.
For oneness to occur
Even
How many miles of road
With their temple
That’s-Not-All-the-People-Can-Discover:
The comic consciousness.

http://theatomicreview.blogspot.in/
Jerun
11. dhirendra singh
basically the movie wants u 2 realize that though a different set of beliefs is needed on different occasions..but u gotta have a set of beliefs or u may call it the core, which should hold good in any situation..until u build dat undistructable core, ur body mind n soul will nevr b 1..ultimately leading u nowhere or mayb 2 a place like d floating island in d movie, which actually is not d real aim/destination..hope dis made some sense..gr8 movie..n ofcourse gr8 book !
Jerun
12. Sleepygirl7tt
I am enjoying reading the many many takes viewers and readers have had on this one. We either read the story or watched it unfold. All took us down to the same final point and conclusion. Awesome story. Either way...
Jerun
13. questioneer
The sentence: "If it happened, why does it have to mean anything?", can be understood in at least 4 ways:

1. As: "If any version of the story happened - then regardless of which version, is not existence in it self quite astounding apart from any addition meaning?" If there indeed exist anything objectively, then this supposed fact is a more convincing proof of God than any human understanding opinion/evaluation/theorizing on the phenomena.
Example: If the boat, the ocean, the boy, the voyage indeed exists, then is a sufficient proof of an external reality, much more fundamental a proof of God than anything the we og the boy can think/feel about the voyage.

2. As: "If the cruelty/wonder did happen, what is the use of making sense of it?" - The search for meaning in life is not rational. Whether the world/human nature is innately cruel or good, there are no use in pondering on the subject.
Example: If throughout your life, everyone you met have treated you badly, then why should you bother to explore the world to wrest some meaning from it why not just ignore it? Conversely, if you have floated by life in an enchanted boat, then why should you waste effort on understanding it, why not just enjoy?

3. As: "When something happens, in which situations will it start to mean anything?" - The realization that only 'bad' thing are truly meaningful. Assuming 'meaningful-ness' is a positive attribute , then he has discovered that only things that leaves mark on a person can be said to be meaningful.
Example: Because the boy experiences the factual voyage was terrifying, he will attempt to make it meaningful. If the voyage had been all plain and event-less, if nothing happened, then it would be meaningless for him.

4. As: "Assume it did not happen, would it then instantly become meaningless?" Mere factual existence is irrelevant, the essence of an entity is its meaning. A thing in it self contains no meaning, it is not important what really happened (if ever anything happened), the meaning/lesson/story is the the main focus.
Example: It is more than likely that neither the tiger, nor the boy truly exists, perhaps the elderly Pi had never been at seas at all. Most likely, the story is all fictional, and is constructed to convey some meaningful message.
Jerun
14. C. Miller
I'm not sure many people are getting what the book or movie were saying. There isn't a right answer! You assume the graphic, human story is true because you think the other is too fantastic. Yet the movie shows scenes that allows you to believe in either. Isn't it just as crazy to believe a cook cuts up people for bait, throws a Mom to the sharks and is then killed and eaten by an enraged boy? It parallels the Bible. Many stories with very little background but millions with faith believe. The investigators and writer chose the a Tiger story. So can the viewer because there is just as much proof for it vs the gory one. Imposing your own reality is not the point and the wrong way to go. You pick what you want.

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