‘Life of Pi’ Review part 2: The Ending (SPOILERS)

Life of pi 2

As the titles suggests, this is a spoiler filled discussion on ‘Life of Pi’s conclusion, so avoid if you’ve yet to see the film.

It’s interesting to note that the part of the interviewer in ‘Life of Pi’, played by Rafe Spall, was originally filmed with Tobey Maguire, but he was dropped and replaced over fears that having such a famous actor playing a fairly minor role in the film would prove distracting.

However, the role of the ship’s cook, an extremely small part, is still played by Gerard Depardieu, certainly the most famous actor in the film. Depardieu probably has only about one minute of screentime. Because he was such a well-known actor, I was for some time in the film expecting him to show up again at a later point. It seems his casting was to make this small and apparently irrelevant character more memorable.

This was the first sign that something might not be quite right with ‘Life of Pi’, it’s one that could easily be forgotten about though.

Near the end of Pi’s journey, when he reaches the island filled with meercats, the film really starts to show its true colours. Up until this point, basically everything we have seen has been plausible. True, some of nature’s colours are more vivid and qualities more magical than normal, but this could just be artistry, or indeed Pi’s hallucinations, after all the whole film is from his point of view. Certainly it would not be any problem for the filmmakers to have us, the audience, accept what they are showing us as reality. However, the meercat island, where it turns out all the plants are carnivorous, is clearly not real. Now, does this represent Pi starting to lose his mind more? After all he’s been alone for a very long time by this point. It could possibly be passed off as such, though would stand out from the rest of the story.

When Pi finally makes it to Mexico, and is interviewed by the Japanese insurance agents, he reveals the true story about what happened. Now, this is not ambiguous, the film is obviously presenting this new story to us as the reality, even having one character explicitly spell it out to us. I found this so incredibly annoying for several reasons.

Firstly, it means the majority of the amazing journey we just witnessed did not actually happen as we saw it. This is not clever (or trying to be), it is not like the ending of ‘The Usual Suspects’ or ‘Fight Club’ where we can reassess and re-watch the whole film to spot clues we didn’t pick up on first time. It is a rug pull, like having Pi wake up and it all has been a dream (maybe not quite that bad but close). What’s more, the real story of what happened is horrifically dark and grisly. As Pi told this, I found myself thinking, actually, I’d quite like to have seen that story. Now this put me at some conflict. I like clever twist endings, and to be honest, I like sad and dark stories. But it’s all about how they are done. My irritation isn’t about the truth turning out to be much more gruesome. ‘Life of Pi’ gives us this amazing adventure, then tells us that it didn’t actually happen, none of it matters, and the truth is much more horrifying than you could imagine.

Pi tells both stories to the insurance agents, and lets them decide which they prefer. You could potentially make a film around this idea, but ‘Life of Pi’ is not giving us a choice to decide which story we prefer, it has shown us all of one story as truth, but then afterwards, told us that it isn’t the true one and just briefly described the reality.

Also, throughout the whole film we are constantly reminded that Richard Parker is a wild animal, a dangerous predator, he is not going to turn into a cuddly companion at any point. All the scenes in which Pi is training him demonstrate this. One of my favourite scenes in the film, when the tiger goes off into the jungle without turning back, beautifully encapsulates one of the harsh realities of nature. One of Pi’s most profound points in the film – that we rarely take the time to say goodbye – is suddenly rendered irrelevant by the revelation that the tiger was never actually there. Likewise all the tiger training scenes lose their meaning.

I haven’t read the book on which the film is based but I understand that the ending is taken directly from it. In a book, told entirely in the first person, I can see that this ending could work better (though I would still find it frustrating), as the whole book will have been from that characters point of view. But in a film these scenes are shown to us as the reality of the story taking place.

Religion is a theme throughout ‘Life of Pi’ and it seems that the point it is making in the end is that people will choose to believe in something even though it sounds fantastical because it is the better story. Now this is undoubtedly true, but the way ‘Life of Pi’ says this is as if to say ‘truth doesn’t matter, what matters is what story you prefer’. Now this is a message I cannot get behind, but I do not think that a person’s personal religious beliefs (or lack thereof) will factor much into their enjoyment of ‘Life of Pi’s story.

I do quite like that this film’s conclusion has generated a lot of heated discussion, but ultimately, it left me feeling cheated by, and angry at a film that I had been greatly enjoying up to that point.

END SPOILERS

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6 thoughts on “‘Life of Pi’ Review part 2: The Ending (SPOILERS)

  1. Rich, I love your film reviews (Read your review of the film before seeing it last night and reading this part 2 this morning). After seeing the film I wasn’t sure what your problem with the end was so thanks for the continuation. The film does adhere to what I remember of the book and I left the commodore feeling the same way as I had when I had finished the book as a teenager. The first story is fantastical, Pi is put through trials by his god/s from surviving the tiger at all, to losing his work on the raft to the whale, to respite by the carnivorous island – a story which can only be true if there is some higher power at work (or there is really a weird floating island). Pi believes this story and only presents a second story when pushed by people that can not believe his original version of events and the observer is given the choice of believing Pi and his god or not. Pi can not prove anything as the tiger is gone.

    I don’t think I can have a problem with the end of the film. I think the whole premise comes down to that last scene.

    The visuals were incredible and wholeheartedly agree with you about the rest of the film, especially the storm that sinks the ship.

    Keep doing what you’re doing (and read Life of Pi).
    Graham

  2. Thanks for the kind words Graham. My essential problem with this film is that, up until the carnivorous island scene, everything we have seen of Pi’s journey does not seem implausible. You say ‘the observer is given the choice of believing Pi and his god or not’. I can see that in the book this may be the case but I do feel that the film does not give us this choice. We are not just told the first story by Pi, it is shown to us, it is the reality to the audience, Then when he tells the other story at the end, the film clearly plays this as him now telling the real story. I didn’t find there to be any ambiguity to it. I reckon this is why many people though the book couldn’t be filmed. Anyway, glad it worked better for you.

  3. I couldn’t disagree with you more Graham, and in all honesty feel you completely missed the boat on what the ending of this film/book poses to the viewer/reader. You are going to think I’M the one missing something, but I truly think you are. I don’t believe the ending tells us what the “real” story was, I believe it leaves it open for us to determine. It’s all a matter of your perception. And this is what goes back to this being such an incredible tale, to make us question our own faith or belief systems however different they may be.

    I appreciate the time you put into your review, but feel you really missed out.

  4. “Even if the connection between the lifeboat parties was missed, the writer makes the connection for the audience (or readers): the hyena is the cook, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the zebra is the sailor, and Richard Parker is Pi. However, the film’s juxtaposition of the animal story and the human story has led many moviegoers to view the last-minute plot point as a finite “twist” – which was not the original intention of Martel (with the book) or very likely Lee (with the film). Viewers have pointed to the look of anguish on Pi’s face during his telling of the human story in the film as “proof” that he was uncomfortable facing the true horror of his experience. However, the novel takes the scene in the opposite direction, with Pi expressing annoyance at the two men – criticizing them for wanting “a story they already know.” Either way, much like the ending of Inception (read our explanation of that ending), there is no “correct” answer – and Life of Pi intentionally leaves the question unanswered so that viewers (and readers) can make up their own mind.

    Facing the final question, it can be easy to forget that, from the outset, The Writer character was promised a story that would make him believe in God. In the first part of the narrative, we see Pi struggling to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations (Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam) – acknowledging that each of them contained valuable elements, even if they tell different stories (elements that together help him survive his ordeal at sea regardless of whether or not he was there with a tiger).

    As a result, the larger question is impossible to answer definitively and, as mentioned, the “truth” of Pi’s story is of little concern to Martel or Lee. The real question is – which story do you, the viewer/reader prefer? Interpretation is subjective but the question is intended to serve as a moment of theological reflection. Are you a person that prefers to believe in things that always make sense/things that you can see? Or are you a person that prefers to believe in miracles/take things on faith? There are no right or wrong answers – just an opportunity for introspection.

    Pi is faced with a heavy challenge: telling a story that will make a person believe in God. Some listeners might remain unconvinced but in the case of The Writer, who openly admits that he prefers the story with the tiger, and the Japanese officials, who in their closing report remarked on the feat of “surviving 227 days at sea… especially with a tiger,” Pi successfully helps skeptics overcome one of the largest hurdles to faith – believing in the unbelievable.

    Since Pi marries The Writer’s preference for the Tiger story with the line, “and so it goes with God,” it’s hard to separate the question entirely from theology. Evidenced by his multi-religion background, Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions are a one-stop shop for the truth of God – and his goal is not to convert anyone to a specific dogma. Instead, his story is set up to help viewers/readers consider which version of the world they prefer – the one where we make our own way and suffer through the darkness via self-determination, or the one where we are aided by something greater than ourselves (regardless of which version of “God” we may accept).

    That said, aside from all the theological implications, and regardless of personal preference, it’s insular to view the ending as simply a dismissal of everything that Pi had previously described (and/or experienced) – since, in keeping with his view that every religious story has worthwhile parts, a third interpretation of the ending could be that the “truth” is a mix of both stories. Like Pi and his three-tiered faith routine, the viewer/reader can always pick and choose the parts that benefit their preferred version of the tale.”

    Courtesy of Screenrant. This is something I found AFTER my previous post, which is much more detailed but also perfectly in line with how I feel about the ending.

    • Hi Jay, thanks very much for your comment.

      I’ll just start by saying that I haven’t seen this film again since originally seeing it around a year ago so I’m going from memory here.
      Your point, and the screenrant article, both seem to be talking about the book and film together, indeed the article states “the novel takes the scene in the opposite direction”. Now firstly, I haven’t read the novel, and frankly whatever the novel does or doesn’t say is irrelevant. The film should stand up on its own, not be seen as a compliment to the book. If some element works in the book but not in the film that does not excuse it, it is the film’s failing.

      Anyway, you appear to have found the ending to be ambiguous, leaving it “open for us to determine”. I’m sorry but I just didn’t feel like the film gave us this option. The film spends the vast majority of its time telling us one story and barely a minute on the second. One has fantastical elements, the other is brutally realistic. If you (and others) felt that the film was allowing you to choose which one was true and which wasn’t then really, I’m happy for you, but I just did not get this from the film at all. Maybe I’m too skeptical? I don’t know.

      If the goal really was to “help skeptics overcome one of the largest hurdles to faith – believing in the unbelievable” and make them “consider which version of the world they prefer” then honestly, this does not make me like it more. To me, in life, the truth is far more important than whatever story one would prefer to believe.

      I do agree that in the film, Pi is giving The Writer (and the insurance agents) the option to choose, but I don’t feel the same happens to the audience. I can see how this story could be filmed in a way that does this, but again, I don’t think this version does.

      And as for the “a third interpretation of the ending could be that the “truth” is a mix of both stories”, so… what? Some of the animals could be still animals but some could be people? Or they could be no animals but still the supernatural island? I’m not trying to be facetious but I don’t see how this could work.

      Anyway, I don’t know if you read my original review of Life of Pi (a couple of posts before this one) but I was, ending aside, otherwise really quite positive on it.

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