Heading into Life of Pi it’s pretty safe to expect a visually stunning film. The promotional materials are filled with picturesque shots of the boy and the tiger trapped on a boat against the endless ocean at sunset. But is the resulting film greater than the sum of its trailers? How much mileage can be squeezed out of boy and a tiger trapped together? It seems like a zero sum equation, eventually one of them eats the other and we all learn a lesson about staying on land. But actually the story of Life of Pi is a very clever meditation on life which Ang Lee has wisely amplified with incredible visuals. I had been dreading a slight or quaint survival piece but I ended up witnessing a very deep and deftly crafted parable.
The first very wise step of this adaptation to film is to hue very close to the source material, a novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The novel strikes a good balance of humble folksiness updated with metaphysical quirkiness in the form of its lead, the precocious Indian boy Pi. Beginning his childhood with a menagerie of animals and religions, Pi is definitely a post-modernist who seeks to understand the limits of his environment. All of this is thrown into sharp relief when a shipping accident leaves him stripped from the world, beautifully rendered in an awe inspiring scene of chaos and silence. After watching the world he knows slip under the ocean, the lights of the ship twinkling like slowly fading stars, he emerges onto the lifeboat and begins his harrowing struggle for survival. Pi is forced to confront a situation which tests his beliefs and values to the utmost degree. In rendering this tale, the film is able to match the same tones achieved in the novel. Especially in the beginning of film when we are introduced to the experiences that formed Pi up to young adulthood, the pacing is excellent and we understand how the character’s psyche is constructed to form this quirky youngster. During the portion of the film on the life raft, the key events are equally well paced, with time appropriately dilating as action intensifies or meanders. The novel is economical and by staying close the movie is able to preserve the tone and very efficiently deliver its points.
But what did the director Ang Lee add to Yann’s novel? Objectively, most of the film takes place on a small boat on the water. A lot of filming was done on this small boat in a big tank of water in Mexico. But as you can tell from the trailers, what a boat! This may be one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen. Although it’s taken many years, it seems like the promise of CG is finally yielding fruit. The animals and weather are all stunning, and the stunningly contrasting colors make each scene hyper real. It’s not just color composition though; each of the parts of the set, the animals minerals and vegetables, moves with the physics your brain naturally expects, with weight and heft. In one great scene, Pi is watching fluorescent jellyfish while on a raft-substitute tied to the main raft by a rope. He catches sight of great whale feeding on the aquatic flora and rapidly rising to the surface. Since this is a movie, we are of course treated to the whale breaking the surface and splashing down on the surface. How cliché! However, in this movie when the whale comes down he smashes into the rope between rafts and throws Pi’s contructions into disarray. Nature is beautiful but alien, its beauty does not naturally make it friendly, a point wrestled with in Herzog’s Grizzly Man and pondered at length in Life of Pi. And this point is wonderfully illustrated by the incredible visuals.
The craftsmanship is also on display in bringing the scale of the issues to life. Life of Pi is strikingly well constructed spatially. The best action on film absolutely requires this, and here it amplifies the struggles a great deal. Trying to keep life and limb, it’s important that it is difficult to scurry over the side of a boat and that a tarp prevents you from seeing what’s going on beneath. The details of each scene are very well done and hue closely to the boy’s fixed perspective to enrich the action without the obviousness of any found footage gimmick. The early scenes on the life boat when he encounters the tiger are incredibly thrilling and had me on the edge of my seat, a very rare apprehension that is usually not achieved by such a simple conflict. Of course this was because I was very invested in the character. Pi is mostly played by Suraj Sharma in a great (largely) solo performance that finds him equally wise and naïve about his situation in the same way he straddles youth and adulthood.
With all of these parts working together well, the themes and issues of Pi propel the movie beyond the craftsmanship. Without being overly cerebral, Life of Pi is a message about the nature of myths and belief. The story is constructed in a metaphysical matter, with it being recounted to an author (supposedly the author of the novel, which you’re watching a film adaption of) by Pi. Without belaboring the point a clear allusion is drawn between an early mention of a religious myth about an Indian god who contains the universe in his mouth, and the tiger on the boat with Pi. In a surprisingly risky abstract scene we’re shown how the universe might represent its nature to people sometimes. For Pi, the tiger’s jaws are a sort of higher force, and within the reflection of those jaws we see a bizarre depiction of the creatures of the world under the water. It is difficult to describe but it works. Pi is subject to his struggle for reasons he doesn’t understand, trapped with an incarnation of the universe that he cannot communicate with. This conflict allows us the approach the philosophical underpinnings of the story. This is all done in a straightforward manner, eschewing dogmatic or syntactic arguments so that you can simply feel something profound. Finally the movie’s denouement includes another meta narrative which nicely brings the whole story and its relation to belief into focus.
When the credit finally role on this beautiful film, hopefully you’ve felt something profound even if we must accept there are no easy answers. I think it’s tremendous that Life of Pi is able to do this in a straightforward way, and it accomplishes this through the synergy of the excellent craftsmanship that put you in a receptive mood. This kind of product is really amazing on a big budget and yet so often we end up with something frivolous from Hollywood. Each part of the Life of Pi, from the great story to the stunning digital effects, work together perfectly. A month ago Argo received the Oscar for what people perceived as a film perfectly constructed and I had to disagree in my review. Life of Pi is that film, and I think it should have won Best Picture. It is great for the same purported reasons but it has a deep core, a soul, and all of its elements work together perfectly in its service.