I wasn’t actually too excited about the concept of a film version of Yann Martel’s famed novel, Life of Pi, because how can you really tell such a story through cinema? Something about its tale seemed particularly caged by the limits (or lack of limits?) that a novel has. But then I forgot about how resourceful and eclectic a filmmaker Ang Lee is. Shot in breathtaking 3D, Lee turned Martel’s sparse tale about spirituality and survival and turns it into a spiraling opus of nature and the will of man. Using the beautiful and vibrant colors of India, along with the mystical tones of the sea, Ang Lee crafted the most beautiful film that I’ve seen this year.
Following in the footsteps of Cameron’s Avatar and Scorsese’s Hugo, Life of Pi doesn’t just use its 3D approach for fantastic visual images (though it does have plenty of that), but instead uses its extra dimension as a story telling device. There’s a moment when the film’s main character, Pi (Suraj Sharma), is dangling helplessly underwater after the freight ship he was aboard sinks during a horrible thunderstorm. He looks up at the surface and it is just a dangling light between him and the ocean of water. I don’t think this shot would have anywhere near as effective without the use of 3D. I’ve never seen anything like that on a movie screen – or ever for that matter. This is quite possibly the greatest 3D shot that I’ve ever seen, and while I’m still not a fan, if most 3D films create things like this – my mood might change.
The film is narrated by Pi himself, but as an adult (played by the always great Irrfan Kahn), telling the story to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who was sent to Pi because he was supposed to hear a story that would “help him believe in God”. Pi finds the assertion that any story of his life could do such a thing, but he begins telling the writer anyway. He speaks about his father (Adil Hussain), who ran a government park and turned it into a zoo. Originally, named Piscine after the French word for “swimming pool”, young Pi fights hard for his two-letter nickname after the kids in his class resort to calling him “pissing”. Throughout his childhood and early adolescence, Pi followed his mother’s footsteps toward spirituality, even following Hinduism, Islam and Christianity all at the same time. This comes at odds with his father’s more practical beliefs.
Eventually, the zoo goes broke and Pi’s father decides to try and sell the animals and move to Canada where there are more job opportunities. They board a industrial freight ship that meets an otherworldly thunderstorm that capsizes the ship and leaves Pi alone on a lifeboat, surviving miraculously. Waking up the next morning, Pi finds himself aboard the lifeboat with an injured zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker”. As the day goes forward, nature begins to take its course: the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan, but Richard Parker kills the hyena, leaving Pi alone to deal with the ornery tiger. Left with only a few survival tools, his own sharp intuition, and a grumpy tiger, Pi spends 227 days at sea, training Richard Parker to behave and hoping to find a savior.
The film’s first act drags a bit, but almost necessarily. It’s important to introduce the spiritual aspect of Pi’s story, and Ang Lee does so in the film’s extended opening scenes. That go on to take nearly the first forty-five minutes of the movie. But the film’s most breathtaking moments happen out at sea. It’s fascinating to see hos Pi is able to utilize the space on the boat, as well as a raft he created out of life jackets and wood, especially considering that he’s dealing with a fucking Bengal tiger. Lee travels deep in and around the ocean, showcasing both it’s shattering beauty and most terrifying darkness, turning the film into a spiritual and natural exploration unlike anything in movies. And while the film never really impresses any religious ideology on its audience (**cough** Flight**cough**), it feels almost like a religious experience.
The film’s use of CGI is also unparalleled. Crafting Richard Parker as well as the other animals, they’re about as close to real-looking as movie magic has ever gotten. I’ve learned that four tigers were actually used at a few moments throughout the movie. It’s a testament to how good the effects are that I cannot point those moments out. It’s hard to write about Life of Pi, I find, without continuously talking about how beautiful it is. I’m sure Ang Lee will get another Oscar nomination for his work here, the way he was able to take a book that was so very anti-movie and turn it into a truly cinematic experience. Screenwriter David Magee excellently makes small adjustments to the story so that it fits perfectly over the template of a film. And Kahn and Sharma work together excellently (though never sharing scenes) to create a brilliantly willful character that takes leadership over one of the best films of the year.
Directed by Ang Lee