Sometimes a writer will give me two or three ideas for a possible screenplay and then will ask which one I think will make the most interesting film. I always have the same answer (and I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t have this answer as well): whichever one is the best written, of course.
This came to mind after seeing the movie Life of Pi, the new film directed by Ang Lee and written by David Magee from the celebrated novel by Yann Martel. Now the previews of this movie might make you think it’s a simple adventure story/rom com about a boy and tiger who meet cute on a lifeboat; can’t stand each other; and just when they fall in love, they go their separate ways (kind of like It Happened One Night with an unhappy ending). But in reality, it’s actually a movie that poses a theological argument for the existence of God. At the end of the movie, a character is given two versions of the same story (one the boy meets tiger story, one the reality of what happened) and he is asked which one he prefers. He chooses the boy meets tiger. The story teller then tells him that’s why he believes in God (i.e., God makes the more interesting story).
Now I can understand why someone might chose to believe that. It makes perfect psychological sense, especially based on what the central character experiences here. But I’m sorry and I’m sorry if what I’m going to say offends anybody’s religious beliefs, and it’s also quite possible that I completely misunderstood what was being said here, but I think this is one of the most ridiculous reasons for believing in God that I have ever heard. Let’s not believe in Him because He exists or doesn’t exist, but just because He makes the more interesting story. I was left aghast and just didn’t know what to say (a reaction my friends will probably not believe).
The story of Life of Pi is structured around a rather clunky set of scenes in which a writer interviews Pi as an adult as he tells this story. It’s basically divided into three parts. The first third is all exposition, and it feels like it. And in case you don’t realize that it’s exposition, the interviewer more or less tells you that that is all it is. This was the most difficult part of the movie for me to sit through since all I was thinking was “when is the movie going to start”.
The middle section is the adventure at sea with Pi as a young boy trapped on that lifeboat with the tiger after the ship he is on sinks. This is the most exciting part of the movie, tense and suspenseful, as Pi has to figure out just how one shares a small confine of space with a carnivore who is very, very…well, carnivorous.
This part is a tour de force of astonishing cinematography (by Claudio Miranda) that would put National Geographic to shame. It’s an at times fascinating tall tale filled with some mind blowing surrealistic scenes of a storm, a leaping whale, flying fish that descend upon the lifeboat like locusts, a sunken ship. And it all culminates with a magic realism trip to an island made of seaweed filled with marmots.
The third part then culminates with the adult Pi telling the writer the resolution of his young counterpart’s story: a rescued Pi must make a statement to the owners of the boat that sank. Here we eventually find out the true story that supposedly makes the theological argument for God. But it’s also somewhat of a let down to find out that this whole narrative that Pi told of his adventures at sea is a total fiction. It feels a cheat when it’s made clear that the purpose of Pi’s story is not the adventure at sea, but only to prove the existence of God. Actually, it feels like a terrible betrayal. And it just doesn’t gel in a very satisfying and dramatic way. In some odd way, in fact, since the story isn’t true, it actually makes the whole thing much less interesting, which sort of causes problems for the theological argument put forth.
The acting is fine, but nothing that exciting. Pi as a young man is played by Suraj Sharma. It’s his first movie role and his effectiveness comes and goes. Irrfan Khan (of Slumdog Millionaire) plays the adult Pi, and his calm, relaxed interpretation is probably the best thing here. Gerard Depardieu is in the movie for some reason; he has one scene and maybe half a dozen lines. But when it comes down to it, it’s the tiger that steals the show in the end, helped by some amazing CGI shots
If the movie had been nothing but the central story of a young boy trapped at sea and the incredible adventure he went on, then the film might have worked for me. But as it is, it’s a clunky plot told in a clunky way backed by some of the clunkiest theological reasonings I’ve ever heard.