Even though many are proclaiming the demise of the written word, and in some cases, such as print media, this consternation appears to be warranted, there is still a sizable market of people who are only too eager to read the latest smash novel from the latest flavor of the month author. Particularly in the young-adult fantasy genre, with series like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, there are more than enough adolescent eyes scavenging the literary landscape to fulfill publishers’ monetary wants and desires.
Somewhat surprisingly though, this trend has not been limited strictly to the youths of the world, with their abundance of free time just looking to be filled with a book, but has also extended to their busy parents, who manage to squeeze in some reading in between the numerous daily obligations that make up their lives. Adult fiction, using every connotation of the word when it comes to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, is a growing market, and one of the first books to cash in on this trend at the turn of the new millennium was Life of Pi.
Winner of multiple literary awards and a New York Times Bestseller, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood would adapt author Yann Martel’s allegorical survival tale into 2-hour length cinematic adventure. As can be seen by the trio of aforementioned fantasy series in the opening paragraph of this review, Hollywood studio execs, being the unimaginative, risk-adverse buggers that they are, are always very ready and willing to adopt established intellectual property into silver screen gold. In fact, given the box office returns on best-selling literary adaptations, the biggest mystery is why this film stayed in development purgatory for such a long time, but the day has come and its time has finally arrived.
The story of Life of Pi, for those such as myself who took a pass on the book, centers around an Indian man named Piscene. Named oddly enough after a particularly swank swimming pool in Paris, due to its status as a homophone with the word “pissing”, Piscene as a young schoolboy is ragged on by his fellow schoolyard chums. In order to combat this, Piscene, at the start of a new school year approaches the teacher’s desk of each new class and proclaims himself to be “Pi,” then going into a spiel about the mathematical term representing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately 3.14. This doesn’t catch on at first, but after a marathon session in math class, where the young Piscene goes on to accurately list the decimals of pi to an absurd degree, the nickname sticks and he is forever known as Pi.
The first third of the story (and the strongest part of the movie), using the conceit of an adult Pi telling his life story to a French-Canadian author interested in turning it into a book, focuses on Pi’s childhood growing up in India. This part of the narrative, which delves into the young Pi’s fascination with religion and his simultaneous adoption of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, could only occur in the post-globalization of the 20th Century and beyond.
It’s a fascinating perspective the commonality between religions. Pi takes elements of each religion he admires and makes an amalgamative religion of his own liking, synthesizing the elements of each that emphasize faith in the Greater Purpose of things.
It also explores the interesting relationship between Pi and his family, in particular the relationship between Pi and his father. Pi’s father, a man once saved by the knowledge of Western medicine, is very much a believer in reason and rationalism. Given his skepticism towards fanciful belief systems, his son’s adherence to multiple religions doesn’t exactly sit well with him, and this clash is the most interesting dynamic in the film.
The second third of the story, which makes up the bulk of the film, centers around a teenage Pi’s treacherous journey adrift in a lifeboat in the Pacific as he battles different animals, particularly a Bengal Tiger, who managed to escape the massive ship he and his family were aboard before it sunk into the ocean during a horrific storm. This part of the movie, which is what the story is most famous for, is where all the high tech computer wizardry kicks in. A zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, a whale, the infamous tiger, and a bit later, an unseemly amount of meerkats are all virtually rendered as Pi fights to survive not only the perils of being stranded in the Pacific ocean, but also the dangers of cohabiting a small living space with a starving dangerous carnivore.
Finally, the film wraps itself up by putting a twist on the proceeding events, shining a new light on the story you thought you had just watched. While I’ll refrain from being that critic that ignominiously spoils a film’s ending, I will say that what the film’s ending does accomplish is to essentially bring it back to where it started: extolling the virtues of faith. Namely, the story consecrates the belief that in a world with so many uncertainties, willful delusionalism is superior to cynical realism.
Regardless of your feelings towards this message (I personally am not a big fan of it), the film is first and foremost an adventure film, and can be enjoyed as thus. The vast majority of the movie takes place on the life raft and focuses on the moment to moment techniques of Pi’s survival. How does he get drinking water when surrounded by an endless sea of salt water? How can he manage to become anything other than tiger chow while sharing such close quarters with a ravenous Bengal Tiger? How in the world can he provide enough food for himself and the tiger?
And here in lies my problem with the survivalist movie genre. While these events in the film are handled adequately enough and are captivating to an extent, it still boils down to just watching someone survive and saying to yourself, “What’s he going to do next?”.
The first third of the film is my favorite section of the movie because this is where all the character development takes place. We get to know Pi, his family, his motivations, and all this is very interesting, but as soon as the ship wrecks, all character development stops at the water’s edge (if you’ll pardon my pun-like use of the phrase). This issue is common with movies of this genre (one notable exception being Danny Boyle‘s 127 Hours, as that film’s use of the protagonist’s emotional state of mind allows it to travel beyond the strict parameters of the character’s perilous predicament), and unfortunately, Life of Pi doesn’t really find a way out of this pitfall.
Directed by Taiwan-native Ang Lee, whose eclectic filmography includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk (the Eric Bana 2003-version), Brokeback Mountain, and Lust, Caution, Life of Pi has a decidedly traditional tone to it: the quintessential example of middle-brow cinema. With its fairy-tale like qualities, it almost feels like a classic Disney movie, but aimed more for adults. My initial quick take on it coming out of the theater was that it felt like, “Forrest Gump meets Cast Away,” and it’s no coincidence that both of those films were directed by Robert Zemeckis (in fact, Life of Pi felt more like a Zemeckis film than Zemeckis’ own recent effort, Flight).
I do not use these terms in a necessarily derogatory fashion, for while I usually prefer things on the more adventurous side of filmdom (occasionally even avant-garde), a good piece of home cooked cinema can be just what’s called for. In the case of Life of Pi, it is stylistically sufficient, but given the fantastical nature of the story, it comes off as a bit bland. I couldn’t help thinking that some more unorthodox narrative structure, or something along those lines, may have serviced the story better, even if it meant some deviation from the source material.
Aesthetically, the heavy reliance on CGI (which is the only conceivable way you could make this film), puts a distance between the story and the audience. Even though the visual effects are unquestionably above par, there still remains a certain mannered digital visage to the creatures that intuitively calls out the 0’s and 1’s around the edges. Despite the exponential growth of technological advances, they still can’t seem to conquer the uncanny valley when it comes to living creatures, and this film wasn’t the one to fix the problem.
Life of Pi is a captivating adventure with spiritual themes pulsating through its veins. While the nagging notion that it probably made a better book than a movie still exists, it is a respectable piece of filmmaking. Solid, if not spectacular, work.