Life of Pi

“Life of Pi” is one of the most gorgeous-looking movies I’ve ever seen, with beautiful live action images blending with CGI to create crisp, dazzling pictures of natural beauty and transcendent wonder. Director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) use 3D not as a gimmick but as a legitimate filmmaking tool that reinforces the themes of separation and distance. But among movies that are intended to be spiritually insightful, “Life of Pi” is also one of the most hollow and disappointing that I’ve seen, a surface-level rendering of platitudinous feel-good hooey.

Based on Yann Martel’s popular 2001 novel, the film concerns Pi Patel, an Indian man (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) living in Canada who relates his incredible experiences to a writer (Rafe Spall), who was told that Pi “had a story that would make me believe in God.” As a teenager (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma in a humble performance), Pi was crossing the ocean with his family and their assorted zoo animals when the cargo ship sank. Most of the film is a flashback to that time, with Pi uneasily sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, praying for rescue.

In his youth, Pi says, he embraced Hinduism as well as Catholicism and Islam. This amused his friends and family, but Pi found elements in each belief system that appealed to him. Now, adrift in the Pacific with a tiger and a limited food supply, Pi’s soul endures its long, dark night, during which he must surrender himself to whatever forces govern his fate. He encounters breathtaking, almost magical examples of nature’s splendor, and of its cruel, circle-of-life coldness: all animals gotta eat, all animals gotta die.

We know that Pi will survive, of course, since we’ve seen the adult version of him recounting the story. The question is how he did it. When investigators refuse to believe his amazing tale of sharing a lifeboat with a tiger, he offers an alternate version that is more plausible, more mundane, and more tragic. Which story do we like better? Why, the one with the tiger, of course. “And so it goes with God,” adult Pi tells the writer, one of several instances of the movie stating its messages directly.

Pi’s point about the stories is the same as his point about religion. But the two are not analogous! Pi’s preference for choosing religious beliefs buffet-style is reasonable because it’s impossible for him to know which, if any, is the truth. It may even be that God doesn’t exist at all, in which case it makes sense to believe whichever story or stories are most useful to you.

In the case of his post-shipwreck survival, though, there IS a definitively true account of what happened. We’re not talking about something mystical and unknowable. He may not be able to prove it to anyone else, but whatever happened to him DID happen. And so it’s silly to believe an alternate version — or to allow others to believe an alternate version — just because it sounds better. The truth is the truth, you know?

The film makes a more fundamental mistake in reducing Pi’s alternate version to a brief monologue while giving the tiger story the full cinematic treatment — giving the impression that the tiger version, as unbelievable as it sounds, is the true story, and that the other one is a fable Pi made up for those who can’t accept the truth. I think people who have read the novel come away with an entirely different impression, which considerably alters the point of the whole thing.

Several filmmakers set out to adapt “Life of Pi” for the big screen and gave up before Ang Lee came along and found a way. He deserves credit for filming this “unfilmable” novel as well as he did, and for the stunning visual feast he created in the process. Such a journey deserves a better destination, though. This one’s pretty to look at but has little meaning.

C (2 hrs., 7 min.; PG, scary action scenes and animal-on-animal violence.)