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.