Film review – Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma)

The visual pleasures delivered by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are so immense that it is difficult to believe the source material was a 2001 blockbuster novel of the same name, by author Yann Martel. In an era of filmmaking where big event films seem to be released almost once a week Life of Pi stands out for delivering genuine spectacle and awe. Digital, 3D and CGI technologies may have once impressed audiences simply by being present in a film, but now it takes true mastery of cinematic style to dazzle keen cinema enthusiasts rather than just placating the casual cinema goers who are looking to pass the time.

Lee is not showing off the new cinematic technology, but using it to deliver emotionally engaging spectacle. The 3D boasts some of the most impressive depth-of-field to date, but otherwise key sequences have an almost stripped back feel to them. Major scenes unfold with neither heavy signposting nor shock tactics. The editing is restrained so that the onscreen action never becomes incoherent while at the same time not drawing attention to itself through excessive long takes. Music cues are strategically held back to complement the emotional response elicited from the audience rather than coax it.  Life of Pi is not a film asking to be marvelled at, it is a film that sutures you into its beauty and excitement without you even realising it.

The narrative and style of Life of Pi is heavily indebted to magic realism, where elements traditionally associated as being outside known reality are incorporated seamlessly into the text. In cinema such a technique is often used to heighten the way character subjectivity is expressed as well as suggesting the distorted nature of memory. Life of Pi uses magic realism to do both these things, but not to suggest some kind of interior reality or to comment on the nature of perception, but to overtly create an alternate reality in contrast to what is commonly accepted as known reality. This dynamic is then extended to comment on the nature of religion and how people relate to it.

After a lengthy prologue to establish Pi as a character, who is played by Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, the main action takes place on a lifeboat adrift at sea. As the sole survivor of a shipping disaster, Pi is stranded with a small collection of animals from his father’s zoo; most notably a full-grown tiger named Richard Parker. Told in flashback by a much older Pi (Irrfan Khan) there are two versions of what happens to Pi during his time at sea. One version is magical, takes up the majority of the film and is told predominantly with the film’s stunning visuals. The other version is far bleaker and only spoken during a scene that takes less than five minutes. It’s not difficult to see which version the film privileges.

Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) – in a scene that playful paraphrases John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – where the audience is directly told ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend’, Life of Pi favours the legend. Furthermore, it depicts the power of storytelling as an explanation for the attraction toward religious belief, in what could easily be mistaken as the film taking a pro-religious stance. By presenting the comforting way that stories can makes sense of the world around us, Life of Pi demonstrates the allure of religion. The film doesn’t necessarily endorse the type of religious belief/storytelling that it gloriously depicts, but it reveals how attractive it is and how under some circumstances it is completely necessary. In this regard the film offers a very sophisticated and compassionate understanding of the importance of faith to some people.

As somebody enamoured with three different faith systems, Pi as a child is often in conflict with his pragmatic father who represented science, medicine and modernity. A key conflict is when the pair argue about the nature of Richard Parker – is the tiger an animal who only acts on instinct or does it have a soul? Cold pragmatism tells us one thing while a strong spiritual belief tells us something else. This tension is explored throughout most of the film, most interestingly through the visuals depicting the natural world. Nature is continually represented as something both beautiful and dangerous. So many moments of visual wonder are then contrasted with reminders that the natural world can be indifferent and cruel, even during an extended dream/hallucination sequence where the film visually provides an all-things-are-connected type message. The repeated motif of figures floating in crystal clear water that reflect the sky so vividly that the figures seem to be drifting in space suggests that humanity is part of a bigger whole, but also that every one of us is ultimately alone.

Nature as beautiful or nature as indifferent, bleak facts or magical stories, science or faith, connected or alone, instinct or animals with souls – these are the dynamics explored by every aspect of Life of Pi. Even though the film ultimately favours a magical version of events, certainly in relation to what happens to Pi, it still comes with two important lines of dialogue towards the start of the film designed to keep things in perspective: ‘Decide for yourself what you’ll believe’ and ‘Don’t let the spectacle and pretty lights fool you.’

Thomas Caldwell, 2013


  1. This is, by far, the best review of the Life of Pi that I’ve read.

    I saw the film in 3D, and it’s well worth making an effort to see it that way. I was a bit of a skeptic prior to seeing these new digital 3D processes: Life of Pi and Hugo have made me a believer. I might even buy a 3D HD TV at some point.

    I’ll have to go see Life of Pi again to respond more adequately, however, I can say that Lee’s mastery of the technology of this film was complete. When you see the legions of people now involved in the digital art of a film, it’s rather stunning that the director’s vision survives the process to get thrown onto the screen. As you observe, in The Life of Pi you get absorbed into it, rather than look at it. My memory of the film is 3D rather than 2D.

    Not having read the book, the alternative revealed at the end of the film came as a surprise. It made me want to go back and reinterpret the whole film in light of it. It also made me rethink that most touching scene in the last quarter or so of the film between Pi and the tiger. In your review you raise the broader question of instinct or evidence of a soul. That also came up in a somewhat different way in The Tree of Life in the early scene with the predatory dinosaur.

  2. Thanks Tom. I’ve slowly come around to 3D thanks to films such as this one, Avatar, Pina, Hugo and a few others. I think like most things, when it’s done well it is wonderful, but too often it is done poorly (or in the case of 3D it is frequently done in post production after the fact, which seems to never yield great results).

    Great observation about the instinct/soul dynamic being similar to the way of nature/way of grace dynamic in The Tree of Life.

  3. Although there were a very few beautiful scenes in Life of Pi, I found the philosphy explored to be extremely paternalistic in the sense that it tries to break the “news” about spiritual beliefs/’god’ in a painless way to mainly children (who made up the largest proportion of the audience) who actually wanted to see a film about a tiger and a boy. In other words to me it was like watching a film made by a closet hitlerian type who wants to educate people in a nice way about the non-existence of an actual God and replace it with a sad little god that is really just an hallucination.
    So Ang Lee is setting himself up as an atheist teacher.
    It is also quite clear in the visual advertising that this subliminal “set up” is deliberately aimed at children.
    Ang Lee to me is now just another “anglee young man” who is really quietly blaming God for all the ugly things and not for any of the beautiful things.
    To mock and abuse the great tolerant classical Hindu religion in this process is appalling. What about classical Hinduism’s great contribution to tolerance, science, language and philosophy? To Ang Lee its all just about dum vegetarian Indian kid getting it all wrong and being forced to eat human flesh to survive.

  4. I think the notion that this is a film deliberately aimed at children to push a particular agenda on them is probably more the result of some misleading marketing and some of your own baggage. And I completely disagree with the assertion that it is mocking and abusing one particular religion, especially as it goes to great lengths to establish that the character is following multiple faiths.

    However, I do agree with the idea that this could be read as an atheist film of sorts, due to the way it suggests that religion is a form of storytelling that is used to comfort. And that’s part of why I liked it so much. It’s not religious, but it respects the role of religion.

  5. It does not respect religion if it subtly insinuates that God it is an hallucination. Freud did that years ago but he was too complicated for kids. Life of Pi is now a film for atheists to show their kids. It is clearly marketed as a children’s film.
    Life of Pi does not respect religion. Its treatment of the youthful main character is the typical atheist’s view that it’s humourous to try to follow more than one religion, when in fact this is the quantum leap that other non-hindu religions desperately need to evolve further.
    If any atheist actually goes to the trouble of studying the Classical Hindu ancient scriptures they will see that it clearly points out that external religious observances and images are of secondary importance to the true inner meaning which is “a formless principle”.
    Also, atheist leaders such as Hawking and Dawkins would also discover from these ancient scriptures that highly evolved explanations of universal phenomena were discovered millenia ago eg. the universe, in both Hawkings view and the Ancient texts, was once a comapratively small “object”.

  6. It is fascinating and refreshing to hear somebody so upset about this film for allegedly pushing an atheist agenda when I’ve heard so many accuse it for allegedly pushing a pro-religion agenda. But rather than pushing an atheist agenda I think it’s saying to atheists, ‘Look we all know this stuff is fictitious but it means a lot to some people, let me show you why and please try to respect that.’ As somebody who sometimes struggles to take religion seriously, I was impressed by that message.

  7. I am deeply upset about Life of Pi, its humourous treatment of the Hindu principle of tolerance towards all religions, its subliminal message that God is an hallucination, its false advertising aimed at children, and even the humorous depiction of the central character. The whole thing is packed full of subliminal advertising promoting atheism dressed in kid’s picture book style.

    What you are describing in your post is a deeply subliminal paternalism not ‘respect for religion’.

    After research, it seems the idea for the book by Yann Martel was stolen from Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar who wrote a book called Max and the Cats. This theft also taints the movie.
    It may well be that Yann Martel (and now Ang Lee) are just as clever at marketing to the new wave of atheism and, both being bereft of original ideas, stole and remodelled an idea simply to sell a movie to appeal to that audience.
    Treating tolerance to all religions as a humourous idea is appalling when you consider that (1) atheists use this very problem to divide and mock religons, and (2) promoting tolerance towards all religions is now an urgent matter for world security.

  8. Well at least I can agree with you on the first eight words of your last comment, since that is most evident.

    I have already responded to your arguments about how the film allegedly frames religion so I’m not going to address that again. Otherwise, pretty much everything else you have written about the message of the film, allegations of plagiarism and the nature of atheism is conjecture and overly influenced by the offense you have taken towards this film, for reasons that I think are unreasonable.

    I think it’s time to move on now and I won’t be publishing any more comments that simply rehash what you’ve already said or are too bogged down in religious outrage. If your belief system is strong and pure enough then it should manage to withstand scrutiny and critique, however real or imagined. If not then I encourage you to start your own blog and you can write lengthy dissertations there.

  9. Dear Mr Caldwell,

    It is important to point out the moral errors of a film that offers itself up as a moral instructor of children.


    Andrew Petrou

  10. Well I think you have thoroughly argued your case for why you perceive the film to contain ‘moral errors’ and why you perceive the film to be presenting itself as a moral instructor for children.

    I thank you for providing such in-depth arguments stating your case, but I still completely disagree with you on both counts. Other readers of my blog can now be left to make up their own minds.

  11. I was very curious regarding these comments on Life of Pi as I havent read the book and am unfamiliar with the debates. The film made me think more of Buddhist teachings on the mind – and I took the tiger to represent our minds which we must always live with, our thoughts which are untamed and untameable, we can never master them fully, but must learn to accept them. I can see that it might also be viewed as a journey through different spiritual teachings – a playful one.
    In any case, watching Life of Pi was for me an experience which was at once visceral, emotional and intellectual. I found the film overwhelmingly beautiful without really desiring to dissect it – I was left with a renewed sense of joy in the world, rather than renewed scepticism towards the world’s religions.

  12. Slow Artist, I completely agree with you. Beautiful film. Buddhist teachings were a feature of the film, although this was never overtly mentioned.

  13. There were absolutely no Buddhist teachings in the film at all. Atheists often use an ill informed defintion of Buddhist to mean “no god” when in fact all Buddhists/Hindus see the individual as god. eg we are all “sleeping Buddhas” etc.

    The most frequent theme in the members comments here is that they haven’t really had time to analyse it all yet. The reason? the film is heavily encased in subliminal suggestion. eg the carnivorous island is momentarily portrayed as Pi’s own body shape.

  14. @Slow Artist and semaj! – thank you for your thoughts!

    @Andrew – Are you still carrying on about this? I did say I’d stop publishing your comments, but I guess I am now perversely fascinated by how obsessed you have become over this. And I suppose you are starting to introduce new arguments, so that’s appreciated. However, do go easy on the ‘nobody else has thought as deeply as I have’ type statements.

    Just out of interest, are you filling up the comments on anybody else’s review of this film or is it just mine that is getting some kind of special treatment?

  15. I chose your site at random as the idea of “autopsy” suggests a stronger tolerance to criticism.

    I am not suggesting others haven’t thought about it as deeply, but I am suggesting the film has been made deliberately hard to understand for subliminal manipulative reasons (as stated above) and needs to be looked at much more critically. The film is subliminal (like the great 2001: A Space Odyssey) except that it negates the reality of the spiritual and will eventually leave a potential seeker with an atheist message couched in spiritual imagery (which also irks me as it is an unethical device).

    I have largely completed what I needed to say about the film and don’t want to expand on it. I do not intend to invade your site and crowd movie reviews with my comments; but I feel it was necesary for Life of Pi to take a severe caning.

    However, if anyone wants to question my interpretation I would be happy to reply and demonstrate the Reasons why I have this strong view. If people want to say its Buddhist then they should say how.

  16. Fair enough.

    I do like your description of the film as containing an ‘atheist message couched in spiritual imagery’. I think that’s spot on and nicely expresses one of the reasons I liked it so much.

  17. Unofrtunately, by using hypocrisy to do so the film has left itself open to numerous ethical contradictions as outlined previously.

    The new wave of atheism is not replacing traditional ethics with any alternatives and hence unethical behaviour is becoming the new norm. Hypocrisy is thus being legitimized and “liked”.

  18. Okay Andrew, I get it. You don’t like atheism and you feel this film is pushing an atheist agenda.

    I tend to agree with you that this film can be regarded as an atheist text, but I disagree with you about the nature of atheism (and that’s starting to get off-topic) and I disagree that the film is as covert in spreading its presumed agenda as you seem to believe. That’s cool. We’ll agree to disagree. The end.

  19. Are you kidding me Andrew? This film explores spirituality–not necessarily religion–in a truly glorious way. The fact that audiences are divided on the matter proves that the movie can be interpreted many ways. And isn’t that what the movie was trying to suggest? We all live in the same world and yet we interpret it differently…for example, through our religions and beliefs.

    *spoilers* I think it’s easy to cast the tiger story as the “spiritual” and the latter story as the “reality”, but I think that it’s unfair and that Mr. Caldwell is completely correct in that the tiger story is a question of universal faith. Certainly, the tiger story is the unrealistic and the latter story is the story that, while horrific, we are *supposed* to believe. We all want to believe the tiger story, though, don’t we? That Pi, while stranded in a horrible situation, didn’t have to endure the evils of human nature. He had a wondrous, albeit tortuous, adventure as evidenced by the grown-up Pi.

    The elder Pi, imo, is essential as a narrator. He is “at peace” in his age, hardly the image of a former castaway. And he is “at peace” with the two stories in a way. This reality could hint that if he did suffer the events of the latter story, that he truly had to keep faith. I think it’s impossible to infer from any part of the adventure story which god Pi favors.

    The film in no way favors religion nor does it favor atheism. It doesn’t ask you to believe in something, it just asks you to believe. Pi, in a way, asks people to believe the tiger story. Because whether or not it’s true, nobody wants to believe he saw what he saw, did what he did. Yet there’s something to be said when weighing out which is more “realistic.”

    The two stories aren’t realistic, because it’s a miracle that a castaway survived, period. Ang Lee treated the relationship between the tiger and boy is intensely realistic; it would be a Disney movie if they became best friends. For me, I believed the relationship as plausible, if that situation were ever plausible. Pi found purpose in his relationship with the tiger and their mutual sense of despair. On the other hand, the supposedly realistic story is the troubling one, yet would make sense. Humans need to survive and do crazy things to get by. But in the movie, older Pi remarks that the tiger was the only thing getting him by–and I found that quite profound. Why would he say this, if the tiger is possibly imagined? He very well could be the tiger “in him” (excuse the cheesiness) that kept him going through his voyage. Which would suggest that if he were truly alone after killing the cook, he would have needed something to get him by. Was it the tiger in him? Was it a higher power? Or was it Pi’s ability to have faith, as seen in his ability to marry three religions in his belief system?

    And stepping back, is that what Ang Lee wants us to see? In a light criticism of the business attitude held by the insurance agents, who are asking for a “believable” story. But the final insurance papers show the agents themselves wrote the tiger story. In the big picture, we don’t want pain and suffering. We want to believe in the good, and at times this can be supplemented by religion.

  20. I agree with much of what Kristen Quan writes above, with the exception of the last paragraph. “In the big picture,” Kristen writes, “we don’t want pain and suffering. We want to believe in the good, and at times this can be supplemented by religion.” The pain and suffering were central to both stories. Religion is not a supplement, an add on; rather, it is a lens through which we interpret and make sense of the world. Pain and suffering are endemic. The religions that Pi practices take that suffering very seriously. So do the best stories. Life of Pi is such a brilliant story because it demonstrates the power of such stories without being heavy handed.

  21. As usual no one mentions the mocking humour regarding Pi throughout the film, or the hypocritical idea of clothing an atheist message in the fineries of spiritual imagery. There are about 30 minutes of pretty special effects; so what?
    The old stale Freudian idea of “religion as hallucination” is just NOT a spiritual message. Of course the bloody tiger was meant to be the inner animal in Pi that enabled him to survive cannibalistic edperiences. That is an atheisitc view, not a religious view. It is a film for atheists with pretty storybook pictures aimed subliminally at children. And that’s commendable??

  22. @Christina: I apologise for the level of debate up to the point where you commented. I found it tiresome too and regret engaging with it.

    @Kristen and Kerry: Thank you for bringing new thoughts to the discussion – much appreciated!

    @PD: Cheers and glad you enjoyed the film too.

    @Andrew: Accusing atheists of using a fictional story to push an agenda on children is extremely ironic. Thanks for the laugh.

  23. Failure to comment on the humour/ hypocrisy is just an admission of wrong…

    [I’m going to cut you off there Andrew. No, it’s not an admission of wrong, I’m just done discussing the same points with you over and over again. You’ve no desire to seriously engage with other perspectives, and you are increasing using the comments to simply grind your anti-atheist ax. This is a film analysis blog and I’ve allowed you to express your feelings and interpretation of the film, but now you’re getting completely off-topic and starting to behave as if you have a monopoly on wisdom, understanding and morality. I’ve given you a good run, but now I really am saying goodbye.]

  24. This was a very nice review of an interesting film. I would agree that while it is up to you to make up your mind, the film had an atheistic tilt when it kind of indicates that religion is like a comforting and fantastic story while rational thought is harsh but closer to what we can believe to be “reality”. I would say that the “truth” lies somewhere in-between and that both explanations have their set of “truths” and “holes”.

    @Andrew As an Hindu, Vegetarian and coming from close to Pondicherry I can understand why Andrew feels that some scenes could be taken as mocking the Hindu faith (and faith in general) but all I will say is that when we are strong in our faith, we can simply respect that other’s can have an opinion that we do not necessarily have to agree with.

  25. I am surprised that no one has connected the boy’s name in the film, Pi, with the mathematical equation Pi. It’s some lind of magical number, it keeps repeating itself and is never-ending. I don’t know alot about Pi the number but I thought the movie was going to have alot to do with it somehow and was surprised to learn it was the name of the main character. Our story, as humans, as creation, whatever, is non-ending and will go on forever.

  26. Factual note: The digits of the irrational number pi in fact NEVER repeat themselves. Subjective impression: A pretty film with little to challenge anyone except, apparently, those devout in their irrational beliefs.

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