It might not make you believe in God, but it sure will make you believe in Ang Lee.
Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Yann Martel (which the film follows remarkably faithfully) and directed by Lee, Life of Pi introduces us to a 16 year old Indian boy named Pi who, as a child, teaches himself about the religions of the world and struggles to choose just one for himself. But before he can make his decision, his family boards a freighter to Canada along with the animals from their zoo in order to start a new life. The freighter sinks, and Pi finds himself the sole human survivor in a lifeboat with an orangutan, zebra, hyena, and Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As he drifts at sea for months, Pi must learn to survive not only the elements and never lose hope, but also to coexist with his fierce animal companions.
This is no Cast Away. While that survival film strove for absolute realism, Life of Piestablishes its magical, almost fable-like universe from the beginning, as the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his story to a writer who’s come to visit him (Rafe Spall) as one might tell a bedtime story to a child. Though the technique worked seamlessly as a storytelling device in the novel, here the simplicity tends to feel cloying more than insightful. But it’s a small gripe. Once Pi begins his journey at sea, we are hooked. His situation may sound far-fetched on paper, but somehow onscreen it feels, well, believable. Some of the best scenes show Pi gradually coming to understand Richard Parker, first catching fish for him so he won’t become the tiger’s next meal, then training him to stay away so they can share the lifeboat. It’s a study of resourcefulness and pure human will.
As 16 year old Pi (two other actors play him at five and 11 years old) first time actor Suraj Sharma gamely holds the majority of the film on his shoulders. He manages to create real chemistry with the tiger Richard Parker, as the two battle for survival but ultimately save each other’s lives. Sharma’s is such a thoughtful, heartfelt performance that when Pi helps Richard Parker back onto the lifeboat in one memorable scene, even though a more practical man would leave the dangerous animal to drown, we feel every ounce of his complicated feelings for his only companion and do not judge him.
More than anything, the film stands out as perhaps the greatest visual delight since James Cameron’s Avatar. With 3D that stays away from gimmicks for the most part, instead hanging out in the background to add subtle depth to the film’s expansive vistas, nearly every scene contains something to marvel at: oceans that glow turquoise or reflect a still, orange sky, a swarm of flying fish, an island teeming with thousands of meerkats. Every animal, including Richard Parker, is computer-generated, but each one is so lifelike you can virtually forget they’re not real. Lee’s vision overflows with beauty and pure originality. Such images have literally never been seen in a film before.
Where the boldness of his Lee’s fantastical vision ideas gets in his way, however, is in advancing the film’s overarching religious themes. It’s hard to squeeze in God when you’ve got to include a shot of a giant glowing whale breaching over Pi’s lifeboat. As it is, the film nearly abandons the threads from the first part of the story in which young Pi charmingly tries on religions like neckties. Once the shipwreck hits, we switch to survival mode, and Pi’s worries about how to properly worship God seem both very far away and very unimportant. Older Pi’s narration disappears for long periods here too, making the film feel a bit like two separate movies rather than one continuous narrative. Does the novel do a better job of blending two such radically different plots? Hard to say.
By the time older Pi has finished telling his story, you might have forgotten that at the beginning it was supposed to make us believe in God. The controversial ending, which readers have debated as long as the novel has been in existence, attends to that assertion. No matter what your interpretation, the film doesn’t quite deserve to make such lofty claims. By the end, our eyes have been dazzled and perhaps our faith in the human spirit has been restored, but you’ll probably walk out feeling the same about God as you did when you walked in.
If anything, Lee’s visual masterpiece has the potential to make us believe in the power of filmmaking as a true art form. His palette is so audacious, his brushstrokes so inventive, that single shots and scenes stick in the mind long after they’re over. Some aspects of the storytelling may be a bit weak, but as a work of pure technological achievement, this Lifedemands to be celebrated.