Astounding images compounded with thematically dense material is realized at the disservice of a narrative structure that problematizes much of what we see and hear. Life of Pi opens and closes in a manner that, if one were not to watch anything else from the film, underscores dullness. Adopting a narrative framework that recounts the tumultuous journey of its titular character, Life of Pi may suffer from the simplicity of David Magee’s initial scripting, but as the picture begins to explicitly tackle its themes of spirituality and religiosity, the film flourishes in its bold imagery.
Magee scripts the film as middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) delicately guides a young novelist (Rafe Spall) through his life story. Spall, serving as the source material’s original writer Yann Martel, is as engrossed in Pi’s story as the audience, providing a good every-man proxy to hold on to. It also helps that Khan is superb in his small role, offering a measure of humanity in a narrator role. Life of Pi bides its time, affording Ang Lee and Magee the opportunity to offer the sort of spiritual subtext that it explores more thoroughly in its second act. Problematic to its design however are the incessant interjections on behalf of its narrator - Lee and Magee harbor no faith in their audience to link images and dialogue together without the need for exposition.
This is a problem that eventually subsides as Lee is allowed to film action sequences, which carry a sense of urgency and permit the director to really show what he can do. Lee devotes much of his time toward constructing images and utilizing Magee’s script as an outline to provoke its spiritual roots. Gorgeously utilizing its 3D elements, Life of Pi isn’t quite the technical marvel that many are proclaiming (Martin Scorsese’s Hugo has yet to be unseated as the finest example of this novelty technique), but the film still possesses an astute level of craftsmanship that is hard to ignore.
The survivalist parable is linked directly with Pi’s (now played by Suraj Sharma) religious awakening, uniting the Christian sacrament of baptism, the story of Noah, and an exploration of Hindu deities. Despite the richness of Life of Pi’s spiritual themes, the film is first and foremost an exploration on the nature of humanity and the drive to live. The intrinsic human elements of the picture’s middle portion are a marvel, combining beautiful imagery with an eloquent narrative. Unfortunately, the picture’s bookended by dull and problematic exposition that attempts to strip away interpretation. For a picture like this, one that revels so deeply in imagery and religiosity, the need to exposit is not just unnecessary, but entirely contradictory. Existentialist musings are best left to the audience to interpret – there’s simply no need to solidify fluid concepts.