Ang Lee's Life of Pi, a faithful adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel, respects all religions, but it worships itself. Based on a tip from a mutual friend, a writer attends the house of the titular Pi, which provides the framing device for Pi's recounted tall tale that finds him out to sea for 227 days on a small boat with a giant Bengal tiger. "He said that you have a story that would make me believe in God," says the writer excitedly.
Pi's story did not make me believe in God, nor is it, as President Obama wrote to Martel, "an elegant proof of God." That is ridiculous, for then Life of Pi would have accomplish what no holy text has. That the writing itself would purport to do so (the writer's quote comes from the book) is a sign of outrageous hubris that Lee's movie respects but ultimately undoes by being about the achievements of man.
I thought that Prometheus would end up being the best-looking movie I'd see this year, but I was wrong. It is Life of Pi. The CGI gorgeousness is unparalleled, from the photorealistic tiger that a 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) barks at and tends to, to an orgy of bioluminescence, sea-as-sky imagery, a flying fish deluge, an acrobatic sperm whale, a playful regard to the picture's aspect ratio. Life of Pi's plot can be summed up as drifting. It may not be proof of God, but it is proof that a movie can exist on visuals alone and still be wildly entertaining. There were only a few moments that felt tedious – and they passed quickly onto the next eyeful of synthetic gorgeousness.
Beyond the visuals, the movie is occasionally witty (the multitheistic Pi on Hinduism: "We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods, not just one") with Pi's insufferable know-it-all-ness greatly reduced from how it comes across in the book. Basic observations are still presented with gravity to suggest that they are products of great insight ("Faith is a house with many rooms," "Hunger can change everything you thought you knew about yourself"), but this is a film that is very much about surface beauty and it presents this in the most literal way possible. It's rare that Lee's water ever so much as plunges underwater (although at one point, it does result in a visually free associative ark's worth of animals). Life of Pi is not proof of God, but a parable for the necessity and allure of religion, how the packaging of a story is key to its success. It couldn't be more earthly if it were set on land.