Like most moviegoers over the age of 14, I despise the prominent part that 3D technology plays in many of today’s films. It’s a rather stupid technology, in my opinion, and yet the industry spends billions of dollars every year to push it upon us and like fools we buy into it, albeit it perhaps begrudgingly. I consider the 3D treatment to be a gimmick (and not a particularly good gimmick at that) and most of the time I go out of my way to make sure I avoid it. Occasionally, however, word begins to circulate that a particular movie MUST be seen in 3D and in those instances I generally find myself reluctantly acquiescing. So it is with Life of Pi, a beautiful and touching film in its own right that is brought to life even further by one of the best uses of 3D we have seen yet. After falling on hard times at home in India, 15 year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his family decide to relocate to Canada to start anew. Pi’s father sells the animals he housed at the family’s zoo and arranges for freighter passage for his family along with the animals. But a few days into their journey the freighter is beset by a terrible storm and sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. He is not alone, however, as his boat is also occupied by a zebra, a hyena, a chimpanzee, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Nature takes its course quickly and soon Pi is left with only Richard Parker to keep him company, a relationship that takes some getting used to for both parties. With a very long voyage ahead of them, Pi and Richard Parker are forced to find an accord as both need the other to survive.
I haven’t read the bestselling book on which this film is based but I know that it was deemed by many to be a near unfilmable piece of work and I can see why. Told from the perspective of an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a young writer (Rafe Spall), Life of Pi builds its drama not through the lens of whether or not our hero will survive but through what sort of man he’ll be when he reaches the other side. Pi is as much about our protagonist’s struggle to know and understand the mind of God as it is about pure survival and it is in this arena in which the film makes its most indelible mark. But there are many themes at work within this film: spirituality, survival, Darwinism, among others, and each of them are wrapped up in a layer of symbolism, which I’m sure I only grasped a fraction of. It raises a lot of questions but it often allows the audience to ponder them for themselves rather than force feeding an answer. Director Ang Lee juggles many balls at one time and the way in which he is able to bring balance to his film, to give each of the varied themes an appropriate amount of attention and still bring it together into a cohesive whole should be commended. Pi tells a very difficult, complex story and yet Lee manages to boil it down to its simplest and most dynamic form, leaving the audience to delve as deeply as they care to go without hindering the spirit of hard-earned triumph that seeps through every aspect of the film.
From an acting standpoint, Life of Pi is perhaps a little underwhelming. I would call Sharma’s performance slightly above adequate: never bad, never obnoxious (which can be a problem when yours is the only character on screen for extended periods of time) but also never truly inspiring. He does his job satisfactorily but it isn’t quite as strong as I might have expected going in. Khan’s is the much more powerful performance for me as I thought his work brought the story home in a way that Sharma couldn’t quite manage. To be fair, however, Life of Pi isn’t an actor’s movie as much as it is a filmmaker’s movie.
Pi represents Lee being given the green light to create and he does so with incredible flair. I’ve seen a handful of beautifully shot, gorgeous films this year (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Skyfall, and The Master come to mind) but Pi is unquestionably the best of the bunch and one of the more awe-inducing, visually stunning films in recent memory. Lee pays particular attention to the animals in his film and as huge sucker for nature programs, I greatly appreciated the creative and glorious way in which he highlights the beasts, whether Richard Parker or the meerkats that inhabit a remote island. It is also full of vibrant, glorious colors and those colors are used splendidly to help Lee set the tone. Some of the shots, in particular a pair in which the sky is reflected on the water in such a way that the only way you can tell where one ends and the other begins is by pinpointing Pi’s lifeboat, are poster-worthy, magnificent moments that stand out in spite of the overall strength of the rest of the shots that surround them. Lee uses the 3D technology in an innovative way, making his film immersive in the background but also bringing his main subjects (Young Pi, Old Pi, and Richard Parker) into the forefront, making them seem all the more real and more relatable. To this point, I would say Avatar and Hugo best represented the efficient use of 3D but Pi very well may have surpassed them both. This movie is a technical wonder and a well-paced, intelligent one at that.
The nature of the narrative lends itself to a few ups and downs that rock Life of Pi from time to time. It always keeps the audience on edge and while this works most of the time, occasionally I felt as if the constant shifts interfered with the film’s momentum. In addition, while I though the somewhat ambiguous conclusion was perfectly fit for the film, I can imagine that some will find it unsettling or at least confusing. But overall, I found Life of Pi to be an affecting and beautiful film and an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
Life of Pi Director: Ang Lee Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall Rated: PG (intense situations and subject matter throughout) Recommended For: Ages 12 and up (Boring for younger audiences and possibly too intense at times)