Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Life of Pi

Lowdown: A teenager’s survival story on board a lifeboat he shares with a tiger.
I think I can safely say Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, was a book of contrasts. Never do I recall a book I disagreed with so much which I also enjoyed so much, to the point of often recommending it and citing it above books I liked better.
The reason for this contrast should be evident to anyone who read the book. On one hand, we have a fantasy tale about a boy losing his entire family when the ship they were sailing on drowns, only to find himself trapped on a lifeboat with a fully operational and quite lively tiger (that is, after the zebra, orang-utan and hyena have been dealt with). It is all grossly improbable, but it’s such a well told fascinating story that joy is inevitable. There is a catch, though: the whole affair is designed as a case for faith. As in, it tells us the story is so fascinating its plausibility no longer matters; one just has to believe it.
Well, no. There is this thing called “the truth”, and it’s important – much more important than fantasizing or any other form of wishful thinking. None of us would like it if courts would judge people based on whose fantasy tale is better; we want them to be the arbiter of truth. Then there is the slight matter of the faiths cited in the book, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam not being as fantastic as their followers would have us believe. But that’s another story altogether...
The point of this contrast is that I was arriving at Life of Pi the movie from a very curious stance: How does the movie visualize the whole boat scenario in a plausible manner? And how does the movie deal with the faith theme? Can Ang Lee, a very respectable director, achieve the impossible here?
Things start off with a film portraying India, our hero Pi's land of origin, in a very flattering manner. It's a tourism ad. However, we clearly receive notification of where the wind is blowing in a scene where the older Pi, narrating affairs, tells us Christianity's story doesn't make sense - but who cares, it's such a fascinating story. What starts off with a whiff turns into a category 6 hurricane as the matter of faith, handled relatively subtly by the book, takes center stage in the film. Not good!
Then there's the matter of the boy and the tiger sharing a boat. I guess that could never really work on screen: a book's lack of visuals can get away with things a film can't. Not to mention the obvious lack of realism that stares the viewer right in the face: I, for example, would have expected the lifeboat to be full of shit, tiger shit. But no; they may be at sea for weeks upon weeks, but our tiger is a clean one.
So yes, one would be right to argue I wasn't impressed by this film's core themes. Even its main point, the one that says faith is worthy because its accompanying stories are so great, does not stand. I mean, come on: the unlikely story of a tiger in a boat is nothing compared to the ongoing story of evolution, the existence of supernovas or the sheer unintuitive complexity of quantum mechanics. Yet all three very much exist and are very much responsible for us being here, a quality that faith cannot claim for itself. As in, want a truly fascinating story? Go ahead and read Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow for a good taste of the fascinations the true world can offer. They sure beat the hell out of Life of Pi's.
Overall: I found I could only engage Life of Pi at its very basic plot level. I'll be generous and grant it 3 out of 5 stars for daring to make a movie of such a complicated setting.

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