Life of Pi might not be for everyone, though ironically, the film is so much about humanity that it would be a shame to avoid it. Luckily, there are some amazing visuals, so if nothing else, the masses can pop their 3D glasses on and behold the sensory extravaganza already thought to have surpassed that of 2009’s Avatar. The difference between Pi and James Cameron’s blockbuster is the story. Some might say that Pi leaves a lot to be desired in the excitement department, but contrary to what might look like a lot of dialogue and a lack of activity, there is a great deal of symbolism in this simple tale.
We are introduced to Pi Patel in his adult years (Irrfan Khan). He is a grounded man and seemingly content to live a quiet life. He has been visited by a young writer (Rafe Spall) looking to document an amazing story, a story the writer had been told would make him believe in God. Pi sits his guest down to a traditional Indian meal and begins to regale him with said story. In a nutshell, Pi had been something of a child prodigy; his claim to fame in his small town of Pondicherry, India was an uncanny ability to write the numerical value of Pi (3.14) at great length. As the son of a zookeeper (Adil Hussain), Pi had developed a love of animals and a knowledge of their mannerisms. When his father decides to move his family to Canada in search of better opportunities, Pi, now a teenager (Suraj Sharma), is crushed, mainly because it means leaving his new girlfriend behind. Nevertheless, Pi’s father immediately arranges the trip via freighter ship.
Not long after embarking with all the zoo animals in tow, a massive storm hits and throws the vessel around like a rag doll. Panic ensues and Pi scrambles to find safety, eventually landing in a small life boat with a frantic zebra and a manic orangutan. But that’s not all - a hungry hyena appears from beneath a sheet and proceeds to kill both animals, subsequently threatening Pi until a Bengal tiger erupts out of nowhere and makes the hyena his first meal on the boat. Pi is stunned and rightfully terrified. He is stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an unruly tiger, and there is virtually no hope for salvation on the horizon.
On the surface, this story is pretty cut and dry if somewhat unconventional: man survives shipwreck and finds himself on a life boat with a tiger. What develops is a relationship based on a need for survival. The audience begins to realize that the tiger, initially the biggest threat to Pi’s well-being, is merely another victim, just as much out of its element as Pi himself. Almost immediately, the contrast between Pi and the tiger conjured memories of Tom Hanks in 2000’s Cast Away. Hanks’ character’s interaction with a volleyball, literally his only companion on a deserted island, reminded me of Pi and the tiger. Adding to this parallel is the fact that the tiger has a human name (Richard Parker), the ironic result of a clerical error many years before.
Life of Pi is told in a steady, sequential manner. We begin with sheer hopelessness and watch glimmers of optimism unfold slowly, minute by minute, as Pi makes headway with the tiger, eventually establishing ground rules for co-existence on the infinite sea. Though it is never definitively answered, Pi implores the audience to question whether or not the events before them are to be taken literally. I felt this was a clever idea; in a way, Pi appears to serve as a contemporary Aesop’s Fable, a story meant to unearth an absolute moral truth through metaphor.
This is a beautiful movie to watch. I can understand the comparisons to Avatar, mainly because there are bright, shimmering colors and landscapes that evoke a combination of amazement and melancholia. The big difference, as I see it, is that Pi looked a bit more real. Whereas Avatar was all fantasy, clearly the product of talented writers and the creative process, Pi showed how beautiful the world can be if we just stop and look once in a while.
Based on the novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi also benefits from a protagonist who does not really subscribe to any one religion. Instead, he studies all the major religions and finds himself by combining them. This is helpful because it does not alienate anyone. Those who may be wary of having their personal beliefs challenged need not worry.
Months ago, when Pi was introduced to audiences in a special extended preview, it looked as if the film would attract the artsy crowd and eventually die off after a few meager weeks. Lately, however, there has been a lot of critical acclaim bumping it up in the public’s consciousness. I believe this will be one of the benchmark films in history. I highly recommend it.