If you didn't believe in God, what would it take to convince you He exists? In Ang Lee's film Life of Pi, the main character Pi (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) tells a struggling writer that Pi's tale of how he survived for 227 days aboard a lifeboat in the company of a Bengal tiger will make the writer believe in God. As an atheist who hasn't seen any compelling evidence to date, I was curious to see how this unusual tale of survival on the high seas would make that argument. I didn't expect to come out of the theater a converted believer, but considering that the book of Life of Pi was a best-seller that won literary awards around the world (and even received direct praise from Barack Obama), I figured that people were finding something within to explain how such an unconventional story could become such a critical and commercial success. Watch my ReThink Review of Life of Pi below (transcript following).
The film Life of Pi is directed by Ang Lee and is based on the award-winning, best-selling 2001 book of the same name by Yann Martel about an Indian teenager named Pi who spends 227 days stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. That's pretty much the whole story, and since it's being told in flashback by an adult Pi, you know that Pi survives. But Pi's journey is supposedly more than just a tale of survival, since, as Pi tells an inquisitive writer, it's a story that will make you believe in God. That would be quite an accomplishment since first, I don't believe in God, and second, Life of Pi strikes me as a story that doesn't prove the existence of God, but actually argues the exact opposite.
Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi who now lives in Canada with his family and is telling his story to a struggling writer, played by Rafe Spall. Pi tells the writer about his childhood growing up in Pondicherry, India, where he became interested in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, and his dad owned a zoo, which included a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi's dad decides to move the family and sell off the zoo's animals, but the ship they're taking to Canada sinks in a storm, leaving a teenage Pi (played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma) on a lifeboat with several animals, including Richard Parker.
Thus begins a tale of survival, with Pi trying to figure out how to coexist with Richard Parker while attempting to keep both of them alive through rough seas, starvation, dehydration, encounters with marine life, and perhaps a bit of magic realism. All this is done with beautiful computer-generated 3D imagery, including state-of-the-art technology melding real and CG tigers that I found, for the most part, to be totally believable.
But does Life of Pi succeed in its goal to be cross-denominational proof of God's existence? Unless you think surviving on a lifeboat for 227 days could only be achieved through the grace of God, I don't see it. To me, Life of Pi never digs in to the truly messy aspects of religion, like the contradictions between Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam that would make it hard for Pi to harmoniously believe in all three. Also, why would God sink a boat full of innocent people and animals? And haven't we established that the natural beauty Pi witnesses while at sea, like a school of flying fish and blooms of bioluminescent algae, is better explained by science and evolution than the creative whims of a magic sky monster? And if mass drownings aren't enough, there's a twist near the end that I won't reveal that, if anything, would confirm that if there is a God in control, he's a cruel, sadistic jerk.
Maybe the book of Life of Pi does a better job of hitting the right faith buttons, and this isn't to say that Life of Pi is even a bad movie. It's visually interesting to watch, the performances are good, I never knew what would happen next (other than Pi surviving), and I think it's great that a major studio threw a big budget behind a movie with a weird story like this with no major stars. But in the end, Life of Pi is more about the nuts and bolts of a teenager surviving at sea and bonding with a tiger than a spiritual quest that asks hard questions about the wisdom, will, and existence of God and why he seems to enjoy inflicting so much suffering and death on unoffending humans. In the end, Life of Pi not only doesn't answer any of religion's big questions, it doesn't even ask them.