One sentence synopsis: An Indian boy must survive a shipwreck in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.
Things Havoc liked: There are Ang Lee movies I like (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain) and Ang Lee movies I hate (Hulk, oh god, Hulk), but there are no Ang Lee movies that I find boring or uninteresting to look at. Ang Lee is a stylistic filmmaker who produces visually stunning work, even when the result is a plodding mess, and whose visual style is so distinctive that other directors get accused of "Ang Leeing" things when they go too far into visual artifice. Lest I sound negative, the primary consequence of Lee's obsession with the perfect image is that every movie he makes is stunningly distinctive, burnt into your mind by virtue of the repeated use of distinctive imagery, the focus of which is unlike that of any other director's movies. Unlike some of his contemporaries (Terrence Malick, for instance), Lee doesn't use visual images to disguise the fact that he has nothing to say, nor even to say anything in particular, permitting the images to stand on their own, under assumption that a perfect shot is its own justification. In Life of Pi, we get two such repeated images, a boat, raft, or swimmer, suspended in water of perfect mirror-clarity, and the alien glow of bio-luminescent plankton agitated by other creatures, aquatic or otherwise. What from any other director would be artifice, is from Lee a simple appreciation of the camera's ability to show us magnificent things.
Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name (unread by me), is a slow, deliberate film, meandering carefully from one sequence to the next with little care as to what one thing has to do with another in favor of showing, much like Cloud Atlas of a few weeks ago, a range of human experience. The central thread is the life of the main character, Pi Patel, a boy named for the french word for swimming pool (long story), who, even before the shipwreck that gets the 'plot' moving has already mediated on the nature of God and spirituality, converted to three religions, and memorized the famous number that serves as his other namesake to about the ten thousandth digit. Played at various ages by different actors, the character's primary portrayer is Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job with a movie that requires him to spend the better part of two hours acting by himself against green screens and CGI animals added in post-production. One has only to look at the Star Wars prequels to know how well that strategy usually turns out, but Sharma's performance is orders of magnitude better than anything found in those disasters. His Pi is resourceful and clever, deeply reflective, at times overwhelmed by his ordeal and at other times confident and collected in the face of it. He turns what could be a artsy version of Castaway into something far more special.
Indeed, this movie surprised me primarily because of what it is not. It is not a story about survival against the odds, not really. Pi is stuck in a situation wherein he might be expected to die, but his lifeboat is well equipped with food, water, survival equipment, and even instructions on their use, and the movie does not linger on the usual torments of being lost and adrift, preferring to concentrate on the spiritual experience of the character. Yet it is also not a Terrence-Malick-like whimsical mediation on the transitory nature of life. Though the film is narrated (and with a framing story), it does not consist of people reciting poetry over shots of clouds. Instead, apart from a few well-done visual explorations of the world beneath the ocean, the movie stays reasonably grounded in what the protagonist does, and why he does it.
Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, there are also other things the movie is not, and one of them is 'focused'. The entire first third of the film is essentially irrelevant to everything in the last two, dealing as it does with Pi's childhood, his introductions to spirituality, his relationship with his father, mother, uncle, girlfriend, and the rest of his life in the family zoo in Pondicherry, India. Not that I object to biographical material, but nothing that Pi goes through with the exception of his brief interactions with the tiger, have any impact on anything that happens in the remainder of the film. It would be one thing if this was merely a framework to understand the character's actions later in the film, but not even the spirituality of the main character is really entered into throughout the remainder of the film, leading me to assume that this stuff was added either to pad out the length, satisfy fans of the book, or both.
There's also some concepts that just clash with one another. The movie starts out rigorously non-fantastical, preferring instead to see the beauty of ordinary things iterated throughout space and time. But midway through the film, the castaways land at a floating island made of what appears to be living Mangrove trees and covered in Meerkats, which as it turns out is a single, living, carnivorous organism. This concept is so strange and so at odds with the realistic feel that the movie has overall been maintaining until this point that it knocks us out of the flow of the story. Moreover, the whole escapade seems to have nothing to do with anything else. Pi visits the island, sees what lies upon it, discovers its secret, and then leaves. Neither anything before nor anything after this point is enhanced by his visit. He discovers no truths and learns no lessons here, it is simply a even which happens and is over. So what exactly was the point?
Final thoughts: That's really the issue I have with Life of Pi in general. The movie is well shot, well acted, and manages despite the 3D to avoid looking like a grainy newsreel (not that the 3D adds anything, but what do you want?). The story is reasonably engaging, and strange enough to keep our interest. But if there's an overall thread running through everything, then I missed it completely. None of the movie's eclectic notions of spirituality, religion, cross-species empathy, or survival seem to actually have anything to do with any other thing, as though the movie was assembled at random from whatever Ang Lee thought would make for a compelling image. As a result, while the film is well made, there's just no greater substance to it but a series of pretty pictures, laden at times with pretenses of meaning, but nothing to back it up. Cloud Atlas this ain't.
Final Score: 7/10