Survival films allure us with a scenario that is thankfully distant yet palpably visceral. Civilization absent, society invisible, norms abandoned, life threatened and despair the fabric of everyday existence, the dire circumstances that a survivor faces grip the audience with suspense. Yet the true charm of survival films lies not in our imagination of these harsh circumstances, where we, too, hold our breath when the protagonist dives underwater to escape from a sinking ship or clasp our armrests when he clings on to the only mast that will keep him from being devoured by iron waves. Instead, if it is ever the case that we cannot resist a survival film, it is our connection with the protagonist that keeps us at the edge of the seat. More than simple sympathy for the underdog against the cruel odds, our relationship with the characters deepens as the dread strips down their social masks to reveal the most raw, most candid portrayals of their nature. We are drawn to survival films because they offer no compromises or apologies in laying out the barest.
With the eponymous 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, which is wildly praised for the flirtation of its narrative with unreliability, Director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) faced a task more complicated than zeroing in on the self. Popular for the “cat in the boat” catch (more specifically, a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker. If you don’t mind spoilers, google this name), the life story of Pi Patel – who changes his name from Piscine Molitor (a reference to his uncle’s favorite swimming pool) to Pi to avoid being made fun of in school – is immersed with questions of faith, animality, lifelong journey and internal struggles. Pi, the irrational number he chooses for its apparent sophistication, also begets his exploration of religiosity and rationality, a theme that haunts him even after conversations at the family dinner and the disaster at sea that left him in the hands of vicious tides. Using these themes as vantage points, Lee carefully parses the survival tale and, in his adaptation, attempts to highlight the philosophy and the action. His fondness for tucking turmoil under smooth, economical storytelling, which has come to define his oeuvre, fits nicely in “Life of Pi,” as the film often goes on for minutes without any dialogue. Not that the scenario really gives much space for effusive, Sorkinian to-and-fro – unlike other works that feature human-animal relationship at high sea, such as Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” or Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” “Life of Pi” is the life of one at first. A bit over two hours, the movie never feels bogged down or boring, a nod to the integrity of Lee’s direction.
Yet “Life of Pi” does not deserve much further flattery. Lee’s cautiousness, translated onto the big screen, ends up as a compromise where serious contemplations look like glimmering ripples on a calm day, too fickle and amorphous to make any lasting impact. Even when the haggard, dying Pi erupts into a frenzy and exclaims his unwavering faith to God in yet another life-threatening storm, we see the motions and hear the roars but are not given the progression of internal dialogues elaborated in the book. The act is portrayed as an impassioned, frantic call for a savior, isolated as an episode but lacking the adhesive that would transition it both from what precedes it and to what happens next. Fidelity gives way to vagueness, which then constructs an appeal that sacrifices depth for cheap satisfaction. In the end we are probed but not challenged, moved but not inspired, questioned but not pursued. While the myriad of metaphors might pique readers’ memories and invite interpretations to fill the gaps, their effect on the audience is too elusive to hold enough weight. The dark twist at the end of the film, doubtlessly the pinnacle of the narrative and the shot-in-the-chest bullet, fails to register significantly enough for the audience’s retrospective. Lee’s signature poetic realism, displayed at the beginning of the film, disappears under a warm, fuzzy ending. It might be a survival film with good questions, but those questions are asked half-heartedly.
If you have been a keen reader, you might have noticed my somewhat strange categorization of the film as a survival film, rather than the more common nomenclature of “disaster film” or “adventure film.” Why the weird name? And why should it matter for the prospective viewers? Allow me to quibble with semantics a little bit here: “Life of Pi” offers – and rightfully so – neither the visual grandeur of destruction nor the excitement over fresh encounters, two essential elements that respectively define the two aforementioned genres. The chronicle of Pi’s 227-day survival at sea serves more to reflect Pi’s own fight to stay alive despite, and later with, the tiger, than to portray oceanic wonders and curious encounters – the opposite of what an adventure film would do. Neither does the spectacle of “Life of Pi,” through the lens of Claudio Miranda (“TRON: Legacy,” “Fight Club”), demonstrate the furious power of catastrophes or sensational panic, both of which are typical in a disaster film. Yet the imagery is just as easy to indulge as that of a disaster film: in addition to the tremendous CGI effects (except its swimming scene, the tiger is not shot but conjured up), the luscious 3D blurs the boundary between the sky and the sea, painting a dreamy waterscape at times too good to be real.
Reality, as the film tries to tell us in the end, is the ruler of our own belief. Yet the film also resorts to a simplistic equation where faith in God might just be a pretty illusion. Though enamored by the beauty, fictitious as it might be, I walked out of the theater underwhelmed by its power. “Life of Pi” might be a crowd-pleaser, but how much more do we get beyond the façade of images and light exercise of moralistic philosophy? Maybe the film better serves as the illustration of the book than as its substitute.