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(After the) Disaster Films: 'Life of Pi' and 'Flight'

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by Corey O'Connell
October 22, 2012 3:33 PM
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"Life of Pi."
"Life of Pi."

This post contains SPOILERS.

The 50th New York Film Festival opened and closed with two fatal disasters -- onscreen. Ang Lee’s visually stunning "Life of Pi," which centers on a shipwreck, had its world premiere on the festival’s first night while Robert Zemeckis’ "Flight" closed out the fest with a dramatic plane crash. Yet neither of these films is truly about their disasters, so much as what happens afterwards, and they move forward from their cataclysmic events in very different directions. "Life of Pi" uses the shipwreck to showcase its title character’s faith in God, which is paramount to his survival when the ship goes down. "Flight," on the other hand, uses the crash to explore the specific despair that comes from addiction and substance abuse.

"Life of Pi" is the riveting story of Piscine "Pi" Patel, played by newcomer Suraj Sharma. Pi’s parents own a zoo in India, and when they decide to sell the zoo and move to America, they set sail with their young sons on the same ship as the animals. After a terrible storm, which Lee depicts in 3-D with impressive, frightening realism, Pi finds himself stranded in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi is no ordinary boy, though. From a young age, his curiosity leads him to explore faith in the form of organized religion. Interested in everything, he is a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim. As the adult Pi tells his story to a visiting writer, it becomes clear that his faith in God -- in all forms -- saves him. Despite the physical challenges in front of him, Pi never gives in to the temptation of total hopelessness. The shipwreck tests his faith on a fundamental level: in the most reductive sense, the situation becomes, "Believe or die." At the end of his story, Pi asks the writer (and the audience) if they choose to believe his story, forcing the viewer to evaluate their own faith.

"Flight" exists on the opposite side of the spiritual spectrum. When alcoholic and drug abusing pilot Whip (Denzel Washington) safely lands a damaged plane while drunk and high on cocaine, his substance abuse comes under scrutiny; despite his heroic efforts, he may still be blamed for the deaths of four of the plane’s passengers. His old friend Charlie (Bruce Greenwood), lawyer Hugh (Don Cheadle), and new friend and former drug addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) all implore him to lay off the booze during the investigation, but the stress prompts Whip to indulge. 

With little subtlety, the film condemns his actions, exploring the dire consequences of Whip’s failing moral fiber. The plane crash forces Whip to evaluate his choices, but he refuses to view himself objectively, instead taking the path of denial. Despite the fact that he faces the possibility of life in prison for manslaughter, he persists in drinking himself into oblivion, even at the most vital moments of the investigation. Unlike Pi, Whip has no faith in anything, from God to himself to his capacity for rehabilitation.

When Film Society of Lincoln Center Associate Director of Programming Scott Foundas introduced "Flight" on closing night, he joked that the festival "started with a shipwreck and ends with a plane crash." Beyond the catastrophic nature of their pivotal events, the protagonists of these (after the) disaster films are characterized by different extremes: Pi is defined by his faith, Whip by his lack thereof. The only other quality these films share is the way in which they inspire hope in their audiences. As this year’s festival was the last to be headed by Film Society veteran Richard Peña -- next year the festival’s selection committee will be led by Kent Jones and Robert Koehler -- "Life of Pi" and "Flight" were the perfect bookends for a festival that is looking toward a bright future.

Corey O'Connell is an American Studies and Contemporary Arts graduate currently working in nonprofit fundraising. A big fan of adaptations and independent American cinema, she also loves music, theater, and photography, and writing about any or all of the above. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.

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