Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Shravanthi Sainath
Directed by Ang Lee
Run Time: 125 mins
Genre: Drama/ Adventure/ 3D Film
Opens November 21st
Review by guest reviewer, Eric Forthunn of Cinematic Shadows
Life of Pi is a visual triumph, a movie that put me in a state of wonderment over its prolonged poetic movements. It's a film of seemingly abstract purpose, providing astounding landscapes on an ocean front with nothing more than a young, abandoned boy and a Bengal tiger fighting for their lives. It's remarkable in the sense that we don't get a true advancement of plot outside of this character's survival, but a character study in the most base use of the word. Ang Lee's vision here is admirable, sometimes breathtakingly so, for it encapsulates a spiritual flow that the movie wants to emphasize in its themes; for the most part, the film's closing moments help demonstrate that wonderfully. I'm skeptical when films rely so heavily on faith as their main driving force, because that can lead to exploring religion in forced and obvious ways. But there's a subtlety here in its approach, using a faith-based narrative that challenges this main character and us as viewers. Are we supposed to believe that this happened to this man, that these extraordinary circumstances lead this boy to the life he lives today? That's a question posed near the end, one Lee doesn't shy away from. His style here is outstanding, the 3D the finest I've seen in years, and the film one of the most visually stunning I've ever come across.
The film, based on the 2001 novel, has Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling the story of what happened to him when he was a boy. The man who's listening, a writer (Rafe Spall), has been struggling lately and finds some hope in Pi's story, asking to write about it. Pi details his life as Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), an Indian boy who goes with his family to Canada in hopes of starting a new life. They run a zoo, so they intend to travel with the animals, sell them upon arrival, and use that money to find a new home. As they're travelling by ship, they hit a huge storm that begins to overtake the crew. Pi, being the adventurer that he is, wakes his brother and asks him to go yell at the thunderstorm; his brother refuses, his parents are asleep, and Pi heads out on the deck. The storm is worse than he anticipated, for he is laughing and enjoying the chaos until he sees men on the other side being overtaken by the currents. He sees the destruction around him and doesn't know how to react, only to finally stumble upon the life boat that the remaining crew surrounds. Pi searches for his family, but their barracks are flooded beyond belief. After much entanglement and struggle, Pi is the only one to make it onto the boat, along with a wounded zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger.
As you can imagine, the tiger wins out and he's the only one remaining. Pi stays off the boat with a life-raft he creates, using the canned water and bread in order to survive. The tiger and him don't necessarily get along, because for all he knows, that tiger is a true animal with no soul. His father even told him so, forcing him to watch the tiger mutilate and kill a goat as a young boy. His father said that when you look at an animal, you can't look into their soul as they say; all you see is your own reflection in the tiger's eyes. Pi doesn't necessarily believe him at the time, but what is he supposed to do? He samples religions here and there as if they were taste tests, and his mother approves because she says he's finding his way. She's also faith-based, holding the religious beliefs in the family, while his father says it's a waste of time. Particularly, he finds that believing in all of those religions is contradictory and won't get Pi anywhere. They each want what's best for him, and their arguments of faith are rather strong; his mother mentions that science can explain everything except who we truly are as people. His father says that science has done more in a few hundred years than any religion has for all of our existence. Both have valid points.
The movie plays like Pi's spiritual journey to accepting himself and the world he inhabits. Certain things are inexplicable, others driven by karma. Some dumb luck, some healthy coincidence. The film's final half hour lays on the element of God guiding him on his path, and while I traditionally don't care for narratives that berate the audience with religious beliefs, it makes sense for this character. And the visual effects in the film only enhance that, giving us the sense of amazement that Pi is undoubtedly receiving. The film is a beauty, whether that be with a scene of flying fish (thousands occupying the screen seamlessly), the whale breaching in an ocean lit only by jellyfish, or the stars occupying the ocean floor as they lie in the boat. The most understated part of it all, though, is that Bengal tiger, who we forget is CG if only because it's that seamless. Pi's interactions with him, including the brilliant introduction of the tiger on the boat (him pouncing at the screen in what might be the best 3D gimmick I've ever seen), are gorgeously rendered, and the tiger's animations are crisp enough that we forget he exists on another plane. The 3D, as I mentioned, is truly remarkable; outside of last year's fantastic Hugo, this is the best 3D film I've seen since Avatar.
Life of Pi takes a while to build to its spiritually guided level; the film's first half hour sets up characters in a rather conventional way that led me to believe I would be getting an average film. But this is an unforgettable film in a year of truly magnificent features; there are so many undeniably impressive elements. This one is full of no names; the only recognizable ones are Depardieu and Khan, but even then they aren't the focal points. Sharma is a star here, carrying the movie's heavy burden on his shoulders, for he anchors a solid hour-and-a-half of the film's running time all by himself (well, with a little help from that tiger). The movie's visual effects feel otherworldly at times because of how truly advanced they are; the 3D goes leaps-and-bounds over where it was a year ago, providing us with not only the immersion required to be effective, but giving us an all-around experience. I've been a staunch critic of 3D, saying for the most part that it is unnecessary on almost every film, but if you're going to see a movie with the new technology, make it this one. Lee's vision requires that extra depth, that little extra glimpse into this wonderful world that could've only been created in today's modernity. Yet the movie has an old-fashioned sensibility that makes it relatable, understanding, and loving. This is an accepting, rewarding film, one of the year's most gorgeous features.