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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Life of Pi

March 21st, 2013

Life of Pi - Buy from Amazon: DVD, Blu-ray Combo Pack, or 3D Combo Pack

Life of Pi had the kind of buzz most films would kill for. From the very beginning, it was seen as a major player during Awards Season. In the end, it won four Oscars, including the second Best Director Oscar win for Ang Lee. On the other hand, many critics, even those who gave the film positive reviews, said it was more impressive as a technical achievement than has a story. Will I be won over by the story? Will I merely like the film's technical prowess? Or will I be one of the rare critics to simply not like the movie at all?

The Movie

When we first meet Pi, he's older and living in Canada and talking to a writer about his life. The writer was told by Mamaji (Elie Alouf) Pi's uncle, to talk to Pi, because Pi had a story that would make him believe in God. Pi's story begins in Puducherry, where he was born. He was born in the zoo his father and mother ran and was delivered by a herpetologist, who is someone who studies lizards. He was named after a pool in Paris, Piscine Molitor, but later changed his name to Pi when the other kids started calling him Pissing...

On a side note, there's a French Mockumentary called Dark Side of the Moon (or Opération lune) that is about the moon landing hoax. The movie has a large number of NASA scientists and politicians talking about the moon landing as if it were really a hoax done with the help of Stanley Kubrick. Part of the story revolves around a co-conspirator who tries to hide out in an Hasidic Jewish synagogue. A Rabbi there is interviewed about him and says that while this man was ethnically Jewish, he wasn't religious and was sarcastic and mocked the Jewish traditions and thus earned the nickname, Acidic Jew. During the end credits, there are outtakes with many of the people interviewed in the movie. This includes the Rabbi in question, who after saying his line turns to the director and says, 'This joke doesn't work in Yiddish.' Why do I bring this up? I seriously doubt the Piscine / Pissing joke works in Tamil, which is the language spoken in Puducherry.

As Pi and the writer continue to talk and share a meal, we learn more about Pi. For instance, while Pi was born Hindu, sort of. His mother embraced her religion, but his father was an atheist. When Pi was 12, he converted to Catholicism, while maintaining his belief in the Hindu gods. I'm not a theologian, but I'm sure that doesn't work (Copy Editor: You would understand that it does work if you live in Nepal/India). Shortly after that, he hears the calls to prayers from a Muslim temple and converts to Islam, again while not dropping Catholicism or Hinduism. Okay, I'm 100% sure that doesn't work. His father gives a compelling argument why this doesn't work. As he says, if you believe in everything, then you believe in nothing.

Later on, the zoo gets a new attraction, a tiger named Richard Parker, after the name of the hunter that caught him. As a kid, Pi really wanted to see the tiger and decided to sneak into the zoo with his brother to feed it. His brother, realizes this is a stupid idea and runs away. Pi stays, but his father catches him, or to be more accurate, he rescues him. In order to show just how dangerous the tiger can be, he shows Richard Parker killing and eating a live goat. It's a rather bloodless death, but it affects Pi so much that he loses his love for life.

Years later, Pi is now 16, he finally finds his passion again when he sees Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath) while he is playing music for a dance class and it is love at first sight. Unfortunately, the relationship doesn't even get a chance to start, as Pi's father decides they have to sell the zoo, because the city council will be cutting the funding. He has a job opportunity in Canada and most of the animals will fetch a good price from North American zoos, so he loads the animals, and his family, onto a Japanese boat heading to Canada. This change is devastating to Pi, but there's worse challenges ahead.

Early in the voyage, their ship encounters a storm. At first Pi is excited to see the strength of the storm, but soon it is apparent that the ship is in trouble. He runs to help his family, but it is too late. When he gets back to the deck, some of the animals have escaped and the crew is trying to abandon the ship. Pi tries to get the crew to help him rescue his family, but instead he is put on a lifeboat. He's the only member of the crew that makes it on the lifeboat, but he's not the only creature that makes it out alive. A zebra jumped from an upper deck and landed in the boat, injuring itself in the process, while Richard Parker later swims aboard as well, but a wave washes him away. It also washes Pi away, but he struggles and swims back to the lifeboat. The next morning, Pi discovers Hari, the hyena was hiding under the tarp, but fortunately the sedatives his father gave the animals haven't worn off yet and it can do little more than stumble around. A short time later, Pi sees Orange Juice, the orangutan, floating on some debris and rescues it as well.

The first day, there's just the four of them on the lifeboat: Pi, Orange Juice, Hari, and Zebra. But that night, Hari kills and begins to eat the wounded Zebra. The next morning, Hari and Orange Juice get into a fight, and while it appears the orangutan has the upper hand, the hyena comes out on top. Pi is ready to take on and kill Hari himself, but before he can, Richard Parker leaps out from under the tarp and kills Hari. It looks like Richard Parker is going to turn on Pi next, but Pi is able to jump from the lifeboat and float on a makeshift raft he was working on.

At this point, it is just Pi and Richard Parker, plus a lot of spoilers, so I will end the plot summary there. So what do I think of Life of Pi? It is technically impressive, but the narrative falls flat on its face. Unfortunately, to explain why requires two things: unforgivable spoilers and a rant.

The next section spoils the ending of the movie. You have been warned. Near the end of the movie, Pi tells the writer that two men from the company that operated the boat came to talk to him, because they needed to figure out what happened for insurance purposes. They don't believe the story about the zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger, so they ask him to tell a story that's more believable. So he tells a story about four people surviving the shipwreck: Him, his mother, a wounded sailor, and the cook. The sailor's leg was broken and became infected, so the cook killed him... and then used parts of him as bait to catch fish and ate the rest of him. Later on, the cook and Pi's mother got into a fight, which resulted in the cook stabbing Pi's mother. Shortly after that, Pi killed the cook. Pi asked both the Japanese investigators and the writer which story they believed: The unbelievable tale or the depressing truth? Both picked the unbelievable tale, therefore, you should believe in god. This is several levels dumber than Pascal's Wager.

For those that don't know Pascal's Wager, Pascal was a brilliant mathematician who came up with a theory why it made logical sense to believe in god. If you believe in god and you are right, you have an eternity in heaven, but if you are wrong, nothing happens after you die. On the other hand, if you don't believe in god and you are right, nothing happens after you die, but if you are wrong, you have an eternity of torment. Even if the odds of god existing are tiny, it still makes logical sense to bet on there being a god. There are so many problems with this theory that if you bring it up in most discussions about god, you will be laughed at. QI, a panel show on the BBC, had an interesting discussion about this a while back and one of the commentators, Sean Lock, explained what the nuns used to tell him as a child. "He knows what you're thinking." If you treat your soul like it's a $100 chip at a casino, then god's going to send you to hell. Then there's the possibility of multiple gods, where worshiping the wrong god might get you more punishment than worshiping no god at all. Or as David Mitchell suggested, what if there is a heaven, but you only get to go there if you are an atheist? There are so many things wrong with Pascal's Wager, but it is still a more compelling argument than Life of Pi puts forth, because...

With Pascal's Wager, you are open to the possibility god or gods exist. Life of Pi states that god doesn't exist, but that's too depressing, so you should pretend he does exist. If the allegory is correct, then belief in god is the same as believing Pi survived on the lifeboat with Richard Parker for more than 200 days. That's not what really happened. What really happened was the shorter story he told in the end with the four survivors, the one where the cook kills the sailor and his mother, before Pi kills the cook. Reality is depressing, so believe what you know isn't true. That's not only a dumb argument, it is dangerous.

On the other hand, Life of Pi does look amazing and if you ignore the story, it is still worth checking out.

The Extras

Extras on the DVD include more than 90 minutes of making of featurettes. The longest is more than an hour and is a general overview. There's a shorter one on the special effects and a third on the tigers. There is also an image gallery and some storyboards. The Blu-ray has this plus some deleted scenes and VFX Progressions for two scenes.

As for the technical presentation, the Blu-ray is reference quality, it is as simple as that. There is only one minor complaint with the video. There are a few digital effects that are so clean and detailed, that they seem to stand out as fake. You've probably heard of the phrase, "Damning it with faint praise.". Well, this is praising it with faint damnation. The audio is just as good as the video and this film can be used to show off your home theater system.

I don't have the 3D version to review.

As far as the prices go, the DVD costs $18, while the Blu-ray combo pack costs $23. That's a good deal considering how amazing it looks. The 3D Combo pack costs $28, which is within the normal range for these releases. Everything I've read says the 3D adds to the movie.

The Verdict

Life of Pi is a technical wonder with a message that is facepalmingly bad. Fortunately, the visuals are more than enough to overcome the story. If you are interested in renting, then the DVD is a fine choice, but if you want to buy, then the Blu-ray Combo Pack or the 3D Combo Pack are the better deals.

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Filed under: Video Review, Life of Pi, Stanley Kubrick, Ang Lee, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Suraj Sharma