LIFE OF PI will not have the same effect on everyone. Sometimes it's a struggle for me when I watch a movie - it's a war between my critical nature and my childlike wonder, and this movie, more so than most, really conflicted me in that regard. In the end, I dove in headfirst back into the awe and joy of childhood, and that's how I prefer to see movies like this, and yet, some of the ideas and spiritualism of Ang Lee's movie will strike others as simplistic and full of platitudes.
I am mostly not a spiritual person, but LIFE OF PI is a spiritual movie experience. The 3D is gorgeous (but make sure to see it on a properly lit screen, otherwise the beautiful visions of Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda look like mud) and is appropriate with the themes of the movie. It is immersive, and just proves my point that when it comes to 3D, the studios should let the big boys play, like Spielberg, or Scorsese, and now Ang Lee. LIFE OF PI is visually stunning, but if it wasn't rich with emotion the movie wouldn't work.
Pi Patel (played by no less than four actors; Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, and then Suraj Sharma for the bulk of the movie, with Irfan Khan telling his story as an older man) is in search of great truths - so much that he looks in every faith he can find to understand the nature of God. Happily a Hundu, and a Muslim, and a Christian, Pi (real name Piscine, but he changes it after kids make fun of it) finds inspiration whereever he can find it. His family maintains a zoo in India, but financial troubles force the Patels to go overseas and sell their animals to anyone who can buy them, including a majestic Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The ship capsizes during a storm, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with Richard Parker. The logistics of such a living arrangement on the open sea would seem impossible, but it's through the nature of the story and how it unfolds that we watch this unlikely relationship grow. Pi begins to despair of his fate, and wonders how could any higher power allow such things to happen. It's these questions that the movie concerns itself with, and while the answers may seem pat to some, for me they resonated deeply.
From a technical aspect, LIFE OF PI is amazing, full of rich visuals that do justice to 3D. I don't even want to learn how the filmmakers brought Richard Parker to life, so real is this tiger, this character, in the film. Foe me, even watching making-of videos seems to break the illusion. For me, that tiger really was on that boat with Suraj Sharma, and that's how I want to leave it. The colors and sumptuous imagery is a feast, and even through the long stretches of Pi and Richard Parker on the ocean, Lee and Miranda always give us something incredible, whether it's a giant whale rising from the ocean depths, a school of flying fish, or the phosphorescent water. The beautiful score by Mychael Danna helps bring it all together. But all these wonderful images would be meaningless if Lee and screenwriter David Magee didn't bring depth and emotion to each moment.
I'm pretty skeptical about most things religious, and I always have been since I was a young boy, sitting in Catholic church trying to make sense of all the ritual and meaning. It all seemed, and still seems, pointless to me. But I've never stopped looking for a deeper meaning to things. I've found it in various places, but I've always looked at other people, devout in their faith, as the lucky ones. Certainty is a wonderful thing, and I don't have it. I doubt I ever will. LIFE OF PI doesn't either. But it's more about the search than the destination - to stop looking, or trying to understand what is beyond ourselves is the true death. Pi's story (and I have not read the novel by Yann Martel, but from what I understand, the ending is very much the same) is his sense of the world, and how it should be, and the answers Pi finds in his journey give him strength.
And for some, LIFE OF PI will paint a too simplistic view of spirituality. I can see their point, even if I don't agree with it - the movie stubbornly doesn't answer some pretty integral questions, which will anger many who see it. But, without spoiling, one particular scene in the movie was where the themes of LIFE OF PI washed over me completely, and I cannot deny that it hit me in a very personal place. For me to deny that would be wrong, and while I'm still grieving over certain losses in my life, looking for meaning in them, I've found that a few movies have my number in this regard, and LIFE OF PI was one of them. The moment resonated with me because I felt like I've lived it, and it was at that moment the film truly connected with me. Again, it was a personal moment, and it won't happen for everyone. But for me, sobbing and remembering, it truly affected me in a way few movies do, and so I cannot dismiss it.
As a critic, I can see the flaws in LIFE OF PI, but as a lifelong film lover, searching for that rush of emotion and beauty every time I sit in my own darkened church, I cherished it. Those moments overran my misgivings, and LIFE OF PI was a powerful cinematic experience for me. Perhaps it will be for you. Who can say?