For the record, let’s make it abundantly clear that I did not read the book, yet I still might because it’s sitting on my kindle waiting for its chance to strike (though, if you read what follows you might find I’m no longer interested in doing so). However, for the time being I think the fact I watched “Life of Pi” having no prior knowledge whatsoever about the story and thus no personal relationship to the said story, qualifies me to pass an objective opinion on what I just had to sit through in the cinema. And it’s not going to be pretty. Had I read the book before, maybe – just maybe – I could be thinking differently, but as it stands now, I am terribly disappointed by what I witnessed.
Where do I begin? For a person who is completely unfamiliar with Martel’s novel (which supposedly is the best thing since sliced bread), having to watch “Life of Pi” seems strange to say the least. So, from my personal perspective, there I was, in the cinema, ready to go, watching the trailers and all, sipping my diet coke and getting comfortable and the only thing I knew about what was about to start was:
1) that it cost like a 120 big ones (one-hundred-twenty-million-American-dollars),
2) the trailer promised beautiful special effects and a fairy-tale-like feel,
3) it was supposed to be about a boy stranded in a boat with a tiger.
This is what I knew. Oh, right, I also knew Ang Lee was responsible for making it and you should know that there had been a precedent for him actually delivering on a promise to get a fairy-tale done right (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” bows humbly). So, given the data at hand, one should expect “Life of Pi” to be good, right?
Wrong! It’s a boy on a boat with a tiger! Period. End of story. And it’s told in the most anti-climactic possible way. I don’t think I’m going to spoil much by saying that Pi – the protagonist – is actually telling the story himself, so we know from the onset how the story ends – he survives. It’s OK for a 19th century novel, but here and now? Really? At least if you’re going to let me know from the very beginning that the main character is going to be fine, at least give us a twist. Give me something, somebody to relate to, anything at all. “Life of Pi” did not grant me that wish. It was a bland mush of colorful imagery filled with characters that I couldn’t give a rat’s behind about.
Not only that: the whole thing assumes this overly pretentious tone of ‘I’m going to tell you a story that will make you believe in God’. This is a very dodgy position to be in because at the end of the day such a bold statement needs to be backed up with some serious arguments. Otherwise, you are seriously risking doing more damage to your story than it needs. It’s like telling your friend: ‘Dude, I just heard this really fantastic joke. It’s so hilarious you will literally die of laughter’ Then you tell the story, the story sucks big time and it gets really awkward. And I could assure you: If you had told the joke without all the gongs of how it’s going to mess with your head on a level that you didn’t even know existed, it would have made a world of a difference. Imagine, you just tell the story, the story sucks and you go about your day. Maybe you’d get ridiculed a bit. Or maybe you could play the story’s suckiness to your advantage by then saying it wasn’t supposed to be funny at all, or that some other idiot told it to you before and you just wanted to re-tell it to make fun of this imaginary moron who is now to blame for the story. However, when you make a bold statement that the story you are about to tell is going to change my life and be super awesome, it’d better damn well be awesome and unforgettable. And I’m sure as hell I’m not going back to a film or a book that was gonged up (or in this case – self-gonged up) to be phenomenal and in reality turned out to be ‘meh’ at best. This is the price for the lack of humility – being stoned to death by cynical a-holes like yours truly.
Right, so I got past the pretentiousness and the anti-climactic tone of the story. So, how in the world, one should make a survivor story interesting? What do you do when all you’ve got is a boat (or an island) and one character? Well, back in the olden days, you’d give your character something to do i.e. throw some kind of hurdles in his or her direction. This would maybe follow a pattern of crash -> sharks -> storms -> hunger -> island -> some natural inhabitants of said island -> salvation or death. That would be ok for a classic novel, where the adventures were the key to a good story. Now, in the 21st century we are familiar with most classical storytelling archetypes, so in order to stand out from the crowd of generic survivor stories you need to add a twist to your story. And by twist I don’t necessarily mean a sudden realization of sorts that turns the story upside down. No, there are simpler ways.
Two words – character development.
When you show your protagonist in a state of flux and let us in on how the world changes him internally (and externally, see “Cast Away”), the audience develops a bond with him and actually cares about whether or not he’s going to be rescued. Of course, when you start off the way “Life of Pi” does, you already shoot yourself in the foot because the character-audience bond is weakened by the lack of uncertainty about the character’s well-being. I’m not saying that you cannot build a solid character in a scenario presented in “Life of Pi”, but the job is all that harder to accomplish. And even at that, all we’ve got is a skinny Indian boy (who is skinny to begin with – being vegetarian doesn’t really help in maintaining body mass) who only gets a couple of blisters and his hair gets longer. No changes, no insanity, no nothing. All the possible tangents where we could get a closer look at Pi are dead end streets.
Why is that? Because the story follows the archetype of throwing adventures in the character’s face while somehow ignoring all the other angles, which in my opinion is a big mistake. First of all, we already know he’s going to take it like a champ and come out on top. Secondly, what can really threaten your life at sea? Weather, hunger and marine life… Let’s not forget about the kitty in the boat. So, there we have whole shebang: the storms, the sharks even the bloody whales and flying fish. In other words – nothing you haven’t seen before. Showing off a whale is not going to amaze me! It’s not the 18th century any more! We know the world, we have internet! God, if I want I can google the whale while in the cinema, which means it’s no longer relevant! There’s no ‘wow’ factor in that.
Gosh, I could rant about it all day. I really wanted to raise one more point but I think I’d spoil too much, just in case anyone who hasn’t seen it yet still wants to see it (no judgment intended). So I think I’ll pass, I’ve been flogging this dead horse for far too long. However, I’ll say only this: what draws people to see survivor cinema is the character. The more real and relatable it seems, the better the story. Dressing it up in animal costumes and biblical entourage while failing to show that a real human being is at the center of it all doesn’t make it a fairy tale. It makes it pompous and stuffy, thank you very much.
In a nutshell, “Life of Pi” is a sum of dated worn-out ideas wrapped in a glossy packaging and sprinkled with glitter. It’s pretentious and self-important and if there is any moral to the story of Pi’s ordeal, it’s that you can sugar-coat a crappy dish all day long, but it won’t make it any better. The coating might seem nice at first, but there’s still *beep* on the inside. A whole plate of it.