Life of Pi: “The Purpose-Driven Life” for the Viral Generation

Jan 16, 2013 by

 

Eagle-eyed newspaper editors everywhere were quick to point out the cruel irony befalling a female medical student late last year. After all, what are the odds that she would find herself on the receiving end of such barbaric abuse after just coming out of watching a life-affirming movie like the Life of Pi? For perpetual cynics like me, it’s another reason to point out why the world isn’t as good as people make it out to be.

However, that simply isn’t the case here. Sure, Life of Pi makes a compelling case for the virtues inherent in all people, but it’s more than that. I’m not too keen on branding modern films as “art” because, let’s face it, most movies nowadays are only screened worldwide if it has a chance of making a profit. But just a few weeks shy after viewing the botching of The Hobbit last December, this film ALMOST reaffirmed my belief on how one good movie—much like a well-thought out documentary—can effectively alter one’s view of the world.

For those unfamiliar with the hype yet, Life of Pi is the film adaptation for Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel. Mainly, the plot can be distilled in just two sentences: teen gets shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal Tiger; he then recounts his story to a struggling writer. Pretty simple, isn’t it? As it turns out, this is one of the keys to why the storytelling aspect of the film—which will play a huge part later on in the film—works very well in a highly visual medium known as the movies.

Life of Pi is more a tale than a recounting. In the vein of Tim Burton’s Big Fish (among the more famous examples), the film shows how a narrator is less concerned with accuracy than with espousing truth with a capital “T”. When title character Piscine Molitor Patel (played by Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma, and Irrfan Khan in ages 5, 11, 16, and middle-age, respectively), painstakingly memorized the whole 10-trillion digit Pi chart just to convince his classmates to call him “Pi” instead of using his first name as a pun for a certain excretory verb (hint: it rhymes with “dissin’”), he expects his audience not to bat an eyelash at the outlandishness of it all. It’s this devotion to magic realism—that subset of literary fiction which argues for the fact that ANYTHING is possible in real life—which serves as the backbone for the whole film.

It’s a genre film which straddles two different planes at once. It’s a cross between Castaway (without the cloying isolation) and Slumdog Millionaire (without the crushing poverty). But the real gem is in Life of Pi’s visual artistry. Three years removed from the groundbreaking CGI achieved by James Cameron’s Avatar, the film will most likely be renowned for its emphasis on still motion rather than hyperkinetic action. The rendering of the ocean, in particular, is unlike any “water effect” I’ve seen before. In a calendar year dominated by special effects overkill, this is exactly the kind of antidote we need from Hollywood to lull our frazzled senses before the next onslaught of blockbusters come our way this year.

But that’s not saying there’s nothing happening all throughout the film. It’s shocking how Life of Pi can ever be considered a popcorn flick, but it really is. Most of the credit predictably goes to teenage newcomer Suraj Sharma, who displays great dramatic timing in most scenes, despite having most of his scenes taking place in greenscreen at the middle act of the movie.

There are so many good things to be said about the movie which can’t be suitably justified under 1000 words. But if there’s one thing Life of Pi has to be called out on, it’s this: it unrealistically sets up a wall of expectations for every impressionable mind watching the film. It’s essentially the same thing which caused hundreds to question Slumdog Millionaire when its hype started to die down. Really, how much English do you expect Indian schoolkids to talk when they’re just among themselves? For a film that is supposed to champion open-mindedness, issues of class and caste are just glossed over in favor of spouting its message that life is one big adventure.

Nevertheless, don’t let those factors scare you. From an entertainment standpoint, Life of Pi is indeed impressive—it was already nominated for several Golden Globes and Academy Awards, so at least you have the satisfaction of having old white farts agree with your preferences—but it’s more of a contemplative experience than anything. It sure has lofty aspirations; it causes the viewer to meditate on spirituality, faith, and life itself. But, just like a miracle, it manages to avoid falling under the weight of its own pretences.

Among the other “unfilmable” source materials shown on movies this year (I’m looking at you, Cloud Atlas), it seems fitting that Life of Pi­—a story built on triumphing over loneliness—is the one most suited to a communal viewing experience. It’s one of the reasons why folks like us still troop over to theaters despite the ease of free downloads and torrents. It’s an art film for the Twilight generation, and I don’t even feel ridiculous saying that.

Does this mean audiences are smarting up? You can never know, but let’s hope that the rest of 2013 gives us more mainstream movies which don’t go out of its way in insulting our collective intelligences.

 

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