Life of Pi Was a Better Story When You Were Fourteen


I really, really wanted to want to watch the Life of Pi.

I read the book when I was fourteen and had some sweet epiphanies. More importantly, I thought that any token gesture of intellectual involvement in The Bygone Bureau would make me less “that grating editor who won’t stop making jokes” and more “that intellectually astute grating editor who won’t stop making jokes.”

The film was a sieve to attention. I watched the first half and promptly fell asleep, and spent the next three weeks staring guiltily at my external hard drive and telling myself that I should finish watching it. I was easy to ignore.

I finally forced myself through it last weekend, and despite all the shiny bits — and there are some very shiny bits — it justified my trepidation. While the attraction of the film should be Pi’s wild story of survival, I found the scene-setting of the film’s first half more engaging; there are at least smidgeons of character development as Pi grows up, discovers religion, and has the most perfunctory romantic interest possible. The second half of the film is a tiger and a boy sitting on a raft in middle of nothing while the viewer waits for them to die. Neither obliges.

Worse than the tedium is the half-assed philosophy shoehorned in at the conclusion. The story-within-a-story film ends with the narrator, an older Pi, asking his audience, a nameless writer we’ll call “Framing Device,” whether he prefers this story — tigers, adventures, CGI merriment — or the unbelievably depressing “real” story, in which the pacifist Pi watches his mother die on the lifeboat and then forces himself to murder her assailant, the chef who previously refused to serve him vegetarian food.

Of course Framing Device says he prefers the story with the tiger, whereupon Pi nods knowingly and says “So it goes with God.”

The moral is that God prefers the story that you can drop $120 million on to fill with incredibly realistic CGI tigers, or maybe that you should worship a $120-million CGI tiger as your God. Regardless, it’s a poor argument. Of course you’re going to choose the fun fiction over the incredibly depressing reality, but that isn’t a direct allegory to choosing between a materialist view of the world and God. The world is pretty awesome sometimes, and — even if you did find it as bleakly horrible as Pi’s real life — you wouldn’t knowingly choose a God that you believed was a fairy-tale alternative, a story divorced from truth and told for its own sake.

Of course, the film’s impression of what you would do is depressingly simplistic, if we’re to take Framing Device’s position as our stand-in seriously. You’re a namelessly polite bearded man in your mid-thirties, content to nod at everything told to you, and — in moments of great import — smile knowingly and shake your head at how crazy life can get,

This clumsy philosophy and pathetic view of the audience’s intellect further soured an already obligatory viewing experience. If the best inquiry a film can offer after contrasting tiger-filled bliss with complete emotional destruction is “Which do you prefer?”, I’m with Bartleby — I’d prefer not to.

Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.

Ben Bateman is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. He grew up on a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, CA, and his eerily encyclopedic knowledge of nowhere and mountains stultifies critics and other animals. You can email him, follow him on Twitter, and read the rest of his work here.