Life of Pi

Life of PiSynopsis: Embark on the adventure of a lifetime in this visual masterpiece from Oscar winner Ang Lee, based on the best-selling novel. After a cataclysmic shipwreck, young Pi Patel finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the only other survivor – a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Bound by the need to survive, the two are cast on an epic journey that must be seen to be believed.

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Life of Pi 8.0

eyelights: the story. the scenery.
eyesores: the abundant CGI. the casting.

“You cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested”

Yann Martel’s award-winning ‘Life of Pi’ is a book I’d been hearing about for years. Acclaimed as it is, it was already hard for me to ignore, but it also happened to find its way on most bookstore shelves since it was first published in 2001. So I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that a film version was in the works.

I was never pulled to the book, and the film did nothing for me either. The one time I got the chance to see it was the night that we went out to see ‘Silver Linings Playbook‘; I just could not be coaxed into seeing the former. But my gf really wanted to see it, so when I got the chance to pick up the blu-ray for cheap, I did.

It took forever for her to convince me to watch the darned thing. One evening, ambivalent about our options, I relented. However, I knew that I was way too tired to complete the two-hour film, and did indeed snooze through it. I wasn’t at all impressed with what I saw, but I figured that I was too numbed by fatigue to appreciate it.

So I re-watched it from the start, having seen so many fantastical things the first time around, things designed to marvel the viewer, that I wanted to give it a chance. Still I remained unmoved. There was more to my detachment than mere drowsiness: ‘Life of Pi’ was too artificial to inspire real emotions from me.

This problem began right at the start, with the opening credits sequence, which took place in Pi’s family’s zoo in India. It showed us a variety of different animals, many more exotic than the last, wandering about freely through this small Animal Kingdom enclave in huge packs or individually.

Both times that I watched this, I sat there telling myself that I really should be amazed by this beautiful intro. Unfortunately, half of the animals looked like CGI renditions, not like real animals. This proved extremely distracting and prevented me from fully immersing myself in the sequence’s majesty.

Sadly, this would become a theme throughout the picture;

  • ‘Life of Pi’ is filled gorgeous locales and shots of India. Unfortunately, far too many of them were embellished with CGI, making them look fake, fantastical. The best shots were the ones that were either unenhanced (or so discretely enhanced that you couldn’t tell), because only then could the world’s natural beauty truly move you. They could have taken lessons from ‘Baraka‘ on how to shoot real locations in a jaw-dropping fashion.
  • The storm that envelops the Patels’ cargo ship looks and sounded impressive, but it was clearly made in a computer – which was distracting, making it difficult to immerse one’s self in the ride, let alone sense the danger. I realize that it’s impossible to create something of this scale on a soundstage, but it made me wonder what filmmakers would have done in the old days, pre-CGI. Needless to say, my mind was anywhere but in the moment as I watched this.
  • The picture is filled with breathtaking underwater shots – not just during the lengthy castaway segment, but even at the beginning in the pool. Again, by embellishing everything with CGI, the picture detracts from our natural wonders.
  • Richard Parker was clearly CGI-ed (they only used a real tiger for a few minor bits). This made the interaction between Pi and Richard Parker less credible and less tense because it was so intuitively obvious that Pi was in no actual danger; it created a level of remove.

Well, that’s all fine and good, but… what’s ‘Life of Pi’ about?

In case you don’t already know, it’s the story of a young Indian man who, on his way to Canada from India, winds up trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days. It’s a story of faith and of survival, but it’s also about stories – the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell others, and the story that is our life.

In ‘Life of Pi’, we find a protagonist who is consistently trying to find spiritual guidance – to the extent that he practices many of the major religions concurrently. His father, meanwhile, is a man who believes that religion pales next to science and cautions his sons about the trappings of religion. Throughout the picture, Pi’s faith will be challenged.

It’s obviously also a story of survival. With Pi trapped in a lifeboat for 2/3 of a year, he is already challenged to the extreme. Being trapped with a tiger, of course, heightened this danger. What’s amazing is what he takes from this ordeal: he believes that the tiger forced him to stay more focused than he would otherwise be, thereby saving his life.

It also becomes a story within a story, in that it’s about a writer who is being told the story by our protagonist, Pi, now an adult. Pi recounts in great detail his journey from India to Canada, regaling the writer with his fantastical tale and all the unusual characters that fill it. But… how much is embellishment and how much is true?

From that perspective, I can see how the original book would be of such mass appeal: there’s more to it than just the core adventure on the high seas. However, I’m not entirely convinced that the film properly evoked those themes. My impression is that, unlike the book, it tends to focus more on the visceral and less on the story’s undercurrents.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

What’s seriously damaging to its credibility is that, along with the remove that its heightened sense of reality creates, ‘Life of Pi’ also defies belief in many instances:

  • How can we believe that all the animals were freed on the cargo ship in the middle of a storm, when most of the humans perished? Who would have released them, and how did they get on the deck?
  • Can we believe that a tiger and hyena are hiding in the lifeboat, laying low in a 4 x 6 space under a tarp for hours, even days on end? And, if so, how would Pi not disturb them when he going under the tarp for rations?
  • How is it that Pi can float around on the high seas when there were sharks around? Likely they were merely added for effect, but are we supposed to believe that, in all those months, not once did they try to attack him?

…et cetera, et cetera.

Obviously, any question that I might have had about the film’s realism is explained away by the ending – after which, it sort of makes sense. Until then, however, one can only stare at the screen dubiously. How can one not?

Of course, now I might watch the picture with a different eye next time.

If I watch it again.

*MAJOR spoiler alert*

Further adding to my inability to immerse myself was the fact that the first part of the picture is constantly interrupted by moments of the Yann Martel and Pi talking, going over his story. While this worked in ‘The Princess Bride‘, it only served to distract me further, adding another layer to my emotional remove.

(Thankfully, they don’t do that at all for the whole time adrift on the sea, which lasted approximately 50 minutes.)

Heck, not even the cast was able to give me any pause:

For starters, the actors playing the leads weren’t all that good. The actors playing the secondary roles were pretty decent, thankfully, but three of the actors playing Pi were either not very good or merely passable. The only one really worth watching was the Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenaged Pi – the one we see the most.

Further to that, I was bothered by the fact that none of the actors playing Pi looked anything like each other. I mean, it can’t possibly be that difficult to find actors who have similar features, is it? I always wonder how this can happen, especially with films who have such massive casting calls – they are, after all, supposed to be the same person.

Other casting issues for me were Rafe Spall as Yann Martel, who interviews Pi (only in the movie, not the book) ; he made me think of a stunned-looking Richard Dreyfus. And then there was a disgusting Gérard Depardieu. His performance was fine, but he’s become so vile-looking in the last decade or two, it’s phenomenal. Ick.

‘Life of Pi’s main saving grace, aside from its tale and theme, is its technical wizardry. Although it’s a mixed blessing, one has to admire the work that went into it. From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a wonder to watch. It’s just that technical wizardry is hardly conducive to soulful experiences; technology should be an aid, not a crutch.

Still, I wonder what it would have looked like in 3D, how the adventure would have looked with added visual depth. The storm that envelops the cargo ship would have been absolutely awesome, especially given its raging soundtrack. And the flying fish segment should have been cool to watch, what with the fish flying outside of the widescreen format.

(Strangely, the film changed format from 1.85 to 2.35 to 1.33 from time to time, for artistic reasons)

Then there is Mychael Danna’s score which is absolutely beautiful. I’ve always been a fan of his, and even tried to interview him for my radio show in the very first few weeks, and so I must admit a penchant for his music. Still, while he deserves the accolades, I wonder why he won with this film, not another. He’s done better, seems to me.

Still, he won the Academy Award for it, and ‘Life of Pi’ was the biggest winner at the 2012 Oscars, with a total of four statuettes. It is also notable for being the first family film (i.e. not PG-13 and Restricted) to win for Best Director since Carol Reed won for ‘Oliver!’ in 1969. And deservedly so – it is a well-crafted motion picture.

One just wishes that, in crafting it, “technique” hadn’t replace “soul”. Pi’s story of his life is far too impressive to be lost in all the eye and ear candy. By being visceral, the picture version overcame the spiritual and existential aspects of the tale. A shame… Still, there will always be the book. And, I suppose, maybe that’s plenty.

“Words are all I have left to hang on to. Everything’s all mixed up, fragmented, can’t tell daydreams, nightdreams from reality anymore.”

Date of viewing: January 7+27, 2014

4 responses to “Life of Pi

  1. Did you never consider that the “animals” weren’t animals?
    I think you might want to pay more attention to the storm and who got on the life boat.

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