Review: Life of Pi

★★☆☆☆
Two Stars

Life of Pi is a new, ‘magic-realist fable’ with academy-award winning Ang Lee as director and a huge digital-effects budget. What could go wrong? Well, a lot, is the answer. Don’t let the stirring electric drums of Sigur Ros and Coldplay (the cheek…) in its international trailer delude you – or the fact that it contains the only ‘pretty’ bits of the entire film.  If you want to see Life of Pi, you might be better off watching the trailer on YouTube instead. 

It gets off to a tortuously numbing start, which pointlessly illustrates Pi’s childhood in India. I know it’s called Life of Pi, but I don’t know if Lee’s literal attempt at a birth-to-mid-life-crisis timeline was the way to go. Sadly, this numbing doesn’t seem to subside once Pi’s actual journey begins. Even the disaster scene of the shipwreck seems futile – and frankly very mundane if you’ve ever seen Titanic. Which we all have. At 20 minute intervals I found myself glancing around at my fellow sufferers, updating my Twitter feed and re-re-checking the release date of Django Unchained.  If this was the rate Pi was going to live his life, it could have been 2013 by the time I left. I hoped it was 2013 by the time I left.

As a further criticism to this, we cannot expect the most radical and genius of wit to arise from a PG film, but at the same time, this does not justify the excruciating surrogates which surfaced. Yes, the schoolboy ‘pissing’ pun on Pi’s (hilariously witty) full name ‘piscine’ did make a few 8 year-olds crow with laughter, but I, along with the premiére-seat pensioners at the back, wasn’t even going to try to change my deadpan expression. When I found myself smiling, it was at the shots of overfed hippos grazing to a badly, badly judged majestic overture.

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So, what is good about Life of Pi?  If nothing else, its digital effects are incredible. The CGI tiger Richard Parker is remarkably lifelike and so should be, starring as the supporting act – or even protagonist. It wasn’t hard to be on a more similar wavelength as those tiger-shaped pixels than the infuriatingly irrational Pi.  Lee does also succeed in breaking the stagnancy of Pi’s journey by whisking us now and then into a glittering and kaleidoscopic unreality (not always making sense), which somewhat illuminates Pi’s daily, and frankly quite pedestrian, lifeboat ritual. Why that whale illustrated in the trailer turns fluorescent, God knows. And even still, the whale’s visual perfection does not, in any way, justify IMDB’s ludicrously high rating of 8.4, which surpasses even James Cameron’s Avatar. It is, without doubt, an optical masterpiece though. What I expect happened was that Lee got a bit too happy over the CGI, and forgot he was supposed to be directing a film. Not an incongruous, 2 hour long advert.

The cherry on top of this cinematic let-down though was, without doubt, its infuriating / anticlimactic / ‘…really?’ / void ending. As the screen fades to black, the spectator silently wills that Lee will pull something startling out of the bag at the last second: Reversal of expectation? Catharsis? The return of Richard Parker? Unsurprisingly, the audience is left (in my experience, at least,) exasperated. Pi’s wife in Canada isn’t even his childhood sweetheart: a satiating ending which even the simplest of films could master. Yes, that girl whose name we can’t remember, but who for some reason was allowed to consume at least 15 minutes of valuable screen time.

If anything, the film is a bombsite (or shipwreck) of unanswered questions and ambiguity. With a middle-aged Pi banging on about ‘believing in God’, and a junior-school Pi trying to follow three religions, you’d think the teenage Pi would encounter one or two instances of divine intervention. Apparently not. So, does the story make you believe in God? Not really. Does the story make you believe in anything? Thanks to the film’s superfluous digital effects, I’d be inclined to say no. If you’d like to pay £7.45 for post-trailer betrayal and a trippy daydream (nightmare?) go and see Life of Pi.  If you want to watch a film, go and see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.