A stacked-deck theological inquiry filtered through a spectacular Titanic-by-way-of–Slumdog Millionaire narrative, Life of Pi manages occasional spiritual wonder through its 3-D visuals but otherwise sinks like a stone. It's no shock that Ang Lee brings to his high seas adventure graceful and refined aesthetics devoid of any unique signature or pressing emotion, as the director has proved himself a skillful craftsman without an imprimatur to call his own. Here, that anonymity results in slavish, proficient devotion to his source material, Yann Martel's 2001 novel. The story concerns the upbringing of Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) in India, his unbelievable experiences surviving a shipwreck aboard a life raft also occupied by a Bengal tiger, and his post-rescue efforts to convince Japanese officials that his tale is true--a three-part structure that's framed by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), recounting his tale to a nameless Writer (Rafe Spall). A struggling Caucasian American novelist who has been told that Pi's saga will convince him of God's existence, the Writer-- who looks like he just came from a Banana Republic modeling shoot-- is a colonialist appropriator of Pi's story, which he plans to turn into his own novel. Lee ignores such thorny sociopolitical dynamics, opting instead to couch this framework as further proof of the divine magic of storytelling. Lee stages the freighter's demise with a thrilling immediacy, taking full advantage of 3-D, and culminates with a shot of an underwater Pi gazing at the vessel as it descends to the bottom, its lights twinkling like flickering eyes. Still, the story's relentless articulation of its thematic aims proves a buzz kill, and the film spoon-feeds rather than enlightens.
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