The Ingredients: ‘Life of Pi’ Recalls Cameron, Hitchcock and Chaplin Films

By  · Published on November 24th, 2012

The Ingredients: ‘Life of Pi’ Recalls Cameron, Hitchcock and Chaplin Films

The Ingredients is a column devoted to breaking down the components of a new film release with some focus on influential movies that came before. As always, these posts look at the entire plots of films and so include SPOILERS.

Even the most visionary and original films can seem derivative, especially to those of us who watch tons of movies on a regular basis. Occasionally it’s intended for the audience to spot certain allusions and apply them to our experience with this new work, as in the case of Holy Motors. Other times it’s not so deliberate, and the fact that new movies trigger memories of older movies (and vice versa depending on when they’re seen) is all on us, yet not totally without reason given how there are really only a few base plots and themes in existence and also given that our comprehension of things, particularly imaginative things, has to be relatable to other things we’ve comprehended previously.

That’s why a movie like Avatar can be “like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” but only to an extent. For it to be accessible to a wide audience – let alone be one of the biggest worldwide hits of all time – it has to “unfortunately” resemble other movies. And now Life of Pi can be likened by critics to Avatar for similarly giving us spectacle like nothing we’ve ever seen before. It sounds ironic but it’s not. Even if the magical island in Pi may even further remind us of the planet Pandora from Avatar, it’s not as if we’re just watching the same fireworks we saw back in 2009. Pi director Ang Lee wows us with incredibly fresh imagery, and the only irony might be that James Cameron plans to go for more water-based locations in Avatar 2. I can’t fathom his 3D computer-generated water could be as breathtaking as what we see now in Pi.

Of course, Cameron has always been the king of water-fetish movies – well, at least since The Abyss (his obsession can’t have originated with Piranha 2) – and at times I was surprised that he didn’t direct Pi. Lee has almost kind of beat Cameron at his own game with the film, even delivering a ship-sinking that is as thrilling as Titanic’s in only a fraction of the time. In some ways, he has almost kind of beat Hitchcock as well, effectively executing a riveting lifeboat tale with only one human character aboard rather than seven, as Hitch had in his 1944 single-location masterpiece, Lifeboat. But Pi has the advantage of additional locations before and after the lengthy section out at sea. And there are some animal characters, most notably the tiger Richard Parker, who is Pi’s equivalent to the German U-boat captain surviving alongside the otherwise Allied ensemble in Lifeboat.

More than a German, Richard Parker reminded me of a lion. Specifically, I recalled the African cat from Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus, in the scene where the silent superstar is stuck in a cage with the beast. But in the 1928 classic, as film theorist Andre Bazin noted famously, for proper comedic effect the scene had to have Chaplin and the lion (and an actual tiger in one momentary gag within the scene) in the same space with no camera or editing trickery. While there is a real tiger featured in many of the shots and sequences of Pi, most of the time the film employs a CGI animal and actor Suraj Sharma was never interacting with the real one. Now it’s kind of amusing how Roger Ebert wrote, in a Great Movies review of The Circus, “measures must have been taken to assure his safety, but CGI was unknown and the lion seems real enough.”

At some points during the film, mainly when Pi begins to treat Richard Parker as if he were a human, it is impossible not to think about another movie almost entirely focused on a single human survivor character stranded in the middle of nowhere: Cast Away. There, the man has not even a single animal companion and so ends up turning a blood-stained volleyball into a silent character named Wilson. And after spending much of the movie on a desert island, the man and Wilson take their chances on a raft out at sea. Eventually, they come in contact with a whale in a bit that’s similar to an encounter in Pi, only the latter is a much grander and more fantastical visual attraction. Also, some shots during the end of the ship-sinking sequence in Pi are reminiscent of shots at the end the plane crash sequence in Cast Away.

Another seafaring adventure film that could be – and has already been by a few – compared to Pi does not involve a ship or plane wreck. In fact, it’s about a fully planned trip through the wide open ocean, unlike those in the above films. As a documentary alternative to Lee’s film (or something to watch before or after), you may consider checking out this 1950 non-fiction Oscar winner, Kon-Tiki, directed by explorer Thor Heyerdahl from footage shot on his raft expedition from South America to Polynesia. At the POV Blog, MOMA curator Rajendra Roy wrote on why the doc is more compelling:

Those who will see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi this season, with it’s stunning open ocean scenes, may not realize that a similar voyage (albiet an intentional one, sans tigers) was captured by sailors and crew, on film, in the late 1940?s. No digital effects here. So when the flying fish land on the Kon-Tiki, and the cameras happen to be rolling, the shivers of excitement are all the more visceral. No digital 3D could deliver a bigger thrill. Maybe that’s what is most impactful about this doc, and great docs in general: capturing the feeling of what it must have been like to be there. And actually being there is always more impactful than fantasizing about it.

Interestingly enough, there’s a brand new remake of Kon-Tiki – well, remake probably isn’t right as it’s basically just a drama about Heyerdahl and his famous voyage – that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. I haven’t seen it, but I can’t imagine it’s very interesting opposite the 62-year film showing the real deal. And the same goes for the real deal over Pi. Kon-Tiki may not have a tiger on board but it does have an exciting sequence involving sharks. And just as in the case of the Chaplin film, there’s more of a thrill when you know something is real. Pi can wow us all it wants with some of the most glorious computer-generated visuals we’ve ever seen, and the CGI is so exquisitely done that it’s easier than ever to suspend our disbelief about a fake creature on screen, but there’s undoubtedly something lesser in it by us knowing deep down that it’s a fake.

So is imagination in a way. And the last film I’ll point out as having been on my mind throughout Pi is one that is constructed out of pure imagination. Vincent Ward’s What Dreams May Come, based on the novel by Richard Matheson, is about a man’s odyssey through Heaven and Hell, places that have been depicted through the arts for millennia yet which we have no real reference point for. And like Pi it is a smorgasbord of eye candy and mind-blowing visual splendor (I will admit, however, that I haven’t seen it in the 14 years since it was released and can only speak to how it looked to me then – it may very well look relatively awful after all this time, especially next to Pi. It did win the visual effects Oscar in 1999, but it was also a light year for the category). Because it’s set in unknown locations, Dreams has more in common with Avatar than Pi, although the new film has a lot of stuff that comes more from the mind than the real world and is set as much in the former as the latter.

Here are some other mentions of films that have been named in comparison or as predecessors to Life of Pi:

“The last we see of the ship is its lights disappearing into the deep – a haunting shot that reminds me of the sinking train in Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987)” – Roger Ebert

“The experiential nature is a bit reminiscent of 2011?s The Tree of Life, in both what it speaks about and in its breathtaking cinematography.” – Karen Datangel, Medium Rare

“A stacked-deck theological inquiry filtered through a Titanic-by-way-of–Slumdog Millionaire narrative” – Nick Schager, Village Voice

“It is like a biblical Finding Nemo, or watching Noah and the ark swept away by the tornado in The Wizard of Oz.” – Duane Dudek, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.