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Life of Pi 3D: Movie Review – Spectacular but Disappointing

Life of Pi movie review

Ever find yourself listening to music on a crummy sound system, and getting fatigued and irritated without really knowing why? The cause is the continuous effort your brain needs to go to as it tries to fill in sonic gaps and replace missing overtones and harmonics. Or so I’m told.

Anyway, I had a similar sensation on leaving a screening of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi the other day, and so did my three companions. None of us could put a finger on exactly what irritated us about the film based on the book by Yann Martel. We all agreed that the 3-D special effects were spectacular, and that the acting was on the whole pretty good. But something seemed to be missing, and the film seemed somehow deeply unsatisfying.

Twelve hours later, after a night’s sleep, I had an answer that seems to me to make sense. So, spoiler alert.

First of all, the way the movie is promoted is highly misleading. The trailer suggests it’s a film that has something profound to say about humanity’s relationship to the natural world, and in particular to other animals. It is anything but that.

The world of animals is presented in a way that has been obsolete in Western thought and experience for a least a hundred years. This is a world in which all non-human creatures are essentially machines that that have no intentionality, no emotion, do not feel pain as we do, and whose actions are determined strictly by their autonomic responses to their environment. It is the world of Pavlov and Skinner, as inherited from Descartes and the French philosophes of the eighteenth century.

But this is the way Pi is taught to think about animals in a central sequence of the movie, in which his father sacrifices a goat to the tiger at the family’s zoo.

As an elaboration of this lesson, Pi later learns at the family dinner table that, while religion may be entertaining to a juvenile mind, science is the only reliable source of truth. Science represents progress; religion—all religion—holds us back, miring us in superstition. Pi’s experiments in faith and belief are smiled upon as childish enthusiasms. The entire “religious” content of the film bears no relationship to any of its significant events, and needs to be seen in the context of the story’s meta-message of an emergent “new India” that wants to leave its metaphysical history and culture behind, and climb aboard the Enlightenment bandwagon.

And here we have another bit of promotional misrepresentation: this is not a “Canadian” film in any but the most trivial of technical/regulatory senses. It is an Indian movie through and through, dealing with that nation’s struggle to emerge into “modernity.” If it does, and if it accepts the values promoted in this movie, then heaven help it, and heaven help us all.

It is precisely the rationalist, materialist, morally relativist value-set that defines the modernism that emerged with the Enlightenment that has dragged us here in the West through centuries of mass slaughter in war, and led us to the brink of destroying the global environment through radical climate change, chemical pollution, nuclear warfare, and/or other unintended consequences of a view of progress that is not anchored morality.

The movie presents us with two possible interpretations of the events it portrays to mesmerizing effect in 3D. We can buy the yarn about the escape of the animals from the cages in the ship’s hold as it flounders, and what flows from this. Or we can accept the story told much later in the film, shortly before it concludes, about human events including a savage struggle for survival in the lifeboat, involving Pi, the ship’s cook, an injured crewman and Pi’s mother. This is of course the “true” story, but it is as empty of value and meaning as the myth. The lesson we are intended to take away is that people are animals accessorized with a conscience (or perhaps even a soul). But if we are to survive in the Darwinian world we’ve been born into, we need to be able to suppress our better nature and behave like beasts when the occasion warrants. The tiger in the allegory is our animal nature. Pi feels somehow diminished when it departs.

What I find so irritating about the movie is its pretention to depth. It is in fact a shallow, sophomoric representation of a rationalist, scientistic approach to our place in the world and our relationship to other life, cloaked in the trappings of mysticism. There is nothing mystical about it. It is all flash, and no substance. Its author(s)—we have to include the screenwriter and director— are great storytellers, with a lame story to tell.

There. Now I feel better.

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