There are spoilers in this review, but since the movie has been out long enough to make it into Walmart’s $5 bin, I’m not too concerned.
The movie begins with a writer who visits an Indian man in Canada to hear about his experience of surviving 227 days in a lifeboat on the ocean. However, the Indian goes into detail about his life in India before the shipwreck: his name is Piscine, which means “Swimming Pool”; after getting called Pissing in school (it was Pipí in the Spanish soundtrack we used), he memorized the number pi out to a vast number of digits and began introducing himself as Pi; he grew up in a Hindu family but was fascinated by Christianity and Islam as well; he briefly had a girlfriend; his dad had a hotel with a zoo; Pi attempted to hand-feed the tiger, but his father interrupted the proceedings and made Pi watch the tiger kill a goat.
First grump: The Spanish voice-over actor’s fake Indian accent wore on me. It was almost as bad as the “ethereal” voice of the giant Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen.
Second grump: The sappiness of Pi’s religiosity. He’s profoundly impacted by a visit to a Catholic church, where he sees the images of the Stations of the Cross and marvels at the idea of the Incarnation and Christ’s redemptive suffering. He begins to worship this God, explaining that Hinduism is polytheistic so he can add one more god without problems. A few minutes later in the film, he’s also struck by the solemnity of a Muslim service, and begins doing the Muslim prayers as well. Oh, how profound, someone who sees beauty and meaning in each of the great religions. Why didn’t they put earlocks and a black hat on him and have him bob and sway at a synagogue as well? Come on. It made me sympathize with his atheist father, who at least appealed to reason in his arguments.
As a result of political turmoil and declining fortunes in India, Pi’s father decides to sell the hotel and take his family and the animals by freighter to North America. The ship’s disgusting cook has no sympathy for their vegetarianism and serves them the same garbage he serves the crew. A friendly Japanese sailor introduces himself as a Buddhist and explains that he survives on rice and gravy because the gravy contains no meat.
Pi goes on deck during a massive storm. The freighter is swamped, and Pi is unable to rescue his family from their flooded stateroom. He does make it onto a lifeboat, however, where he is joined by zoo animals that have escaped from their cages in the hold: a zebra, which breaks its legs while jumping in; a hyena; an orangutan; and the tiger.
The hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan. The tiger kills the hyena and presumably eats all three dead animals, because they disappear after a while. Pi makes a raft of life vests and oars and drifts beside the boat out of reach of the tiger, returning occasionally to get supplies of food (cracker packets) and water. Eventually he ends up training the tiger to keep its distance, and the two learn to share the boat. They survive on fish, mostly serendipitously.
At one point, the boat drifts up to a floating island with edible vines, pools of fresh water, and thousands of meerkats doing that cute meerkat standing-around thing. They rest there for a few hours, but at night when Pi climbs a tree to rest, he discovers a human tooth inside a flower growing in the tree. He also sees dead fish and a dead shark floating in the pond where he had swum and drunk shortly before. He comes to the conclusion that the island is malevolent, and runs back to his lifeboat to escape. The tiger had already returned to the boat at nightfall.
Third grump: So far the movie has been reasonably plausible, if unlikely. Why in the world does it suddenly shift to magical realism? We will find out at the film’s conclusion, unfortunately.
The boat drifts for an unspecified amount of time and washes up on the Mexican coast. Pi jumps out and drags the boat ashore, collapsing on the sand. The tiger leaps ashore and staggers off into the jungle without a look back. Pi is hurt because the tiger doesn’t acknowledge him in any way. His conclusion is that his father was right, the tiger is a beast and was never his friend.
After this, we return to the scene with the writer and Pi in Pi’s home. Pi reports that, as he recovered in a Mexican hospital, two Japanese gentlemen interviewed him on behalf of the shipping company, trying to discover why the ship swamped in the first place. He has no answer to that question, but tells them about his survival experience. They are profoundly skeptical and tell him that they can’t report that to their employer. He tells them an alternate narrative: he was initially accompanied in the lifeboat by the Japanese Buddhist, who broke his legs dropping into the boat; the disgusting cook; and Pi’s mother. The cook killed the Buddhist and used his flesh for bait to catch fish. The cook killed Pi’s mother. Pi killed the cook and survived by eating him. Pi points out that this story also fails to explain why the ship sank.
The writer comments on apparent parallels between the two narratives: the zebra is the Japanese sailor, the hyena is the cook, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the tiger is Pi himself. Pi congratulates him on his perception and asks him which narrative he prefers. The writer says that the one with the tiger is a better story. Pi responds, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” When the writer looks at the Japanese men’s report on the shipwreck, he sees that they also opted to report the tiger version.
Fourth and biggest grump: The film rubs our noses in the concept of the relativity of truth. According to Pi, truth is a story, and you choose your own, ideally opting for the best-written one; we can choose to believe the stories of religion or the bleakness of atheism. I have no patience for this kind of pretentious irrationality. If my only choices are either a meerkat-occupied floating island where the flowers hold human teeth, or an unpleasant but at least plausible narrative about people doing horrific things, I’ll believe the latter, even if it isn’t as good a story. As they say, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.
Returning to Pi’s father: while I disagree with his atheism, I resonate more with his reason-based worldview than with Pi’s relativism. As a Christian, I am also rational. I don’t believe in Christianity just because it’s a great and powerful story. The Christian story is presented in the Bible as history, with evidence for and multiple witnesses to its miraculous events. Jesus did or did not exist historically, and did or did not do the things recorded about him in the Bible. If he didn’t exist, or if the things reported about him in the Bible are not true, then my belief in him is pointless.
I picked up a collection of stories by Life of Pi’s writer Yann Martel before I watched the movie. The first two stories were somewhat entertaining and moving. The latter two were just weird. My main gripe about all of them was that the writer was too clearly present. It reminded me of a book by Max Lucado that I once tried to read. I only made it through a few pages. It was sappy and pretentious, and Max was also too visible in the cutesiness of the writing. Pretentious, narcissistic writers make me grumpy.