Pi Patel promises a story that will make you believe in God. Stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, the titular hero searches for (and director Ang Lee strains for) profundity in this yarn of religious faith, survival instinct, and the connections between them. But what begins as a spiritual manifesto — Pi studies Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam simultaneously — ends up as insincere posturing. The only religion this opulent opus subscribes to is faith in the beauty of visual effects.
Life shines when those visuals take over, yet the borderline-shallow pontifications about faith are equally ubiquitous. (The 3D is admirable, but I'd suggest skipping the surcharge so you can see Claudio Miranda's stunning cinematography without tinted glasses rendering each color a shade dimmer.) Pi feels more like a dramatic conceit than a person, and the leaden performance by first-timer Suraj Sharma doesn't help. His journey is paired with an unfortunate framing device: Rafe Spall features as an inquisitive author who bluntly articulates the film's themes and symbolic motifs. It's a paean to multiculturalism (certainly not complex enough to justify the pandering narrator), but David Magee's script, adapted from Yann Martel's novel, is understandably hesitant in exploring his lead's contradictory faiths.
This is really just an event picture, and thus it's more invested in the episodic series of visual marvels — a tiger stranded on a raft, an island of scurrying meerkats, a zebra fighting its way out of a sinking cargo ship — than in the soulful conflicts that accompany them. (I'd argue that, in terms of Hollywood survival epics from 2012, The Grey is a much more compelling look at God and his inherent silence.) At times, the hallucinatory images and interest in man's struggle against nature suggest Werner Herzog by way of Michael Powell. But this tiger is more guarded friend than incomprehensible foe, and these painterly compositions aren't so much an aspect of the story as the whole raison d'être.
A climactic twist reveals that Lee, Martel, and Magee may be more interested in the nature of narrative than in faith, but it's too little, too late. "Why does it have to mean anything?" — it's a direct quote, one that suggests Lee is copping to the fact that this is more about beauty than about searching for something under its surface. Life poses as a spiritual experience, but it's more like a postcard.