Sunday, December 2, 2012

Movie Review: Life of Pi

It is quite impossible, when reviewing this film (and the book), to discuss it without delving into the meat of the story.  Therefore spoilers will be abundant below the asterisks.  Please don't read below there if you plan on seeing the movie or reading the book (both of which are highly recommended.)

The Life of Pi is based on an incredible novel by Yann Martel.  I say this because you probably won't find any other work of his aside it at a bookstore, as they were not commercial successes.  It's like every author has a finite supply of "muse juice," the amount of works that, given a lifetime of creating and writing, that any one book will reach the point where, a century from now, it will still be read.  Harper Lee knew when not to write anymore, she had used up her muse juice, and To Kill a Mockingbird has probably been read (or at least seen) by millions of high school kids all across the world.  And I bring up Lee's novel because the film is highly faithful to the book, making it very possible to watch the film and understand almost everything that Lee intended.

Thus the same goes with the movie Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.  The story of how this novel became a movie is worth a book in itself, having gone from director to director, from screenwriter to screenwriter, with each succession of groups failing, with each director choosing another project to work on.  M. Night Shyamalan was slated to produce the movie first, but chose instead to film The Lady in the Water.  (I, for one, am SO glad M. Night did not direct this movie.) The current screenplay, written by David MaGee, compresses the emotion, the framework, the illusory ease by which you conclude the 2nd part, the shock of the 3rd part, and boils it all down into a movie which might be better than the book.  And let's face it, while reading the book will always be preferred, if you only have 3 hours to complete the story, it's very okay to watch this movie.  There will be no Indian attacks in The Scarlett Letter movie which was botched from the beginning.  There is no better way to experience this story than to watch the film.

One other note before I talk about the movie itself.  Watching it in 3D is essential to the story, as the visual effects of the ocean, of the animals and their movements, turns it from a critical success film-wise, to an artwork of motion, colors, and sound.   Much like Hugo a year ago, the 3D imagery does so much to accentuate the film, rather than be just a gimmick to draw you into the theatre.  I expect that if Titanic had first been released in 3D, it would still be the #1 movie at the box office.

The story behind the movie (book) is framed into three parts. Pi's life in India, which introduces us to the zoo that his father has created in the park within the French-Indian coastal town of Pondicherry during the 1970's, is written in lyric prose, Thoreauian, philosophical in nature, with words and scenes as lush as the Romance of exotic India which drew so many colonists there throughout the years.  The second part finds Pi stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the prose turns Hemingway-esque, parse, more concerned with survival and the realism of doing so (suffice it to say that it is best, while reading this part, not to be eating your lunch). And then the end, which I will speak of later.

I see I have talked about everything except the plot. A look at the book or movie cover will tell you as much, so it's not necessary.

I will warn, I guess, that those who are avid animal lovers will not like the movie, although I expect that no real animals were harmed during the filming.  For those of you like this, I recommend reading the book instead.

Go see the movie, and do it in the theatres before it goes away, in 3D, because seeing it on a normal TV won't have nearly the effect. 


What made the movie amazing, aside from the 3D imagery, the sheer strength of the characters, the soundtrack which added to the imagery as it swirled around Pi and his surroundings, was the ending.  To me, a movie reaches "great" status when it affects me in some way.  The ending, specifically, the alternate story that Pi gave the Japanese insurance agents who interviewed him in the hospital, was so troublesome, as it was exactly opposite of the story about faith, strength, compassion, that Pi had shown the whole movie.  But given the circumstances, man will do anything to survive.  It provided evidence that man is inherently evil.  In the alternate story, the animals that survived the crash were substituted for people, including Pi's mother.  The problem is, after everything we've experienced with Pi, with the Tiger, with all that was real or illusory, we can't tell, there's no way to know which story was true.

After I got home, I looked on IMDB to see other people's reaction to the film.  Most people loved the movie, but hated the ending.  Its unique, a movie in which the intent was to make you hate the ending.  But I think Ang Lee intended that all along.  And the surprise is that Yann Martel included the same scene in the third part of the novel.  Yet I didn't remember it.  I read the book, and loved it.  I would have remembered a plot twist such as this, but I didn't.  The only conclusion I can make is that my brain rejected the alternate version of the story that it completely blocked it, regarding it as a useless part of the book, something to be totally forgotten, to preserve the Romantic (capital R) version with the Tiger (who in the end could be considered the "Noble Savage.") I was amazed. I had to go back and reread the ending to make sure that it wasn't something Ang Lee just put on there as an addition.  We only remember what we want to.  History is only written, leaving out the things that mankind must do, or does, in the dark recesses of his heart, his mind.  It was a stark addition to the end, to say that not only is Nature indifferent to mankind's sentience, but man is indifferent to each other.  And I couldn't accept it.  To the point where I forgot the scene even happened.


As additional reading, I recommend the following books as ancillary material to understanding the themes that come from Life of Pi.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.  The framework is similar, as is the path of the hero, and the lie at the end of both stories that flaw the "hero" as complete.  Both stories also show the beauty and unrelenting evil of man and the world he lives in.

"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane.  A short story about men stranded in a lifeboat just off shore.  Shows the indifference of nature, and our need to make heroes out of those on the boat.

Dove by Robin Lee Graham.  A teenager who saled on a ship around the world. From his total loneliness to finding his wife and finding faith, the book is very similar to Life of Pi, and is well worth reading. They made a movie of it as well, although I've never seen it.  In this book, Graham has the instruments to navigate around the tides and currents that Martel and Lee forget to include in the movie and book.  It's a necessary plot hole, as a boat stranded without a sail would follow the tides, and would wind up going north and would end up in California or even Canada, not Mexico as in the ending.  The only explanation is that there was a strong El Nino current in the Pacific at that time, causing the currents to reverse.  That is plausible, at least to alleviate cynicism.

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