Title: Life of Pi
Genre(s): Adventure, Drama
Director(s): Ang Lee
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Movies that try to convey religious material, are more often than not duds for me, because they rely on the belief of that religion. It’s hard to change someone’s mind on their faith through religious material, and that’s why it should be more of a focus to simply tell a story of faith rather than convince someone of that faith. In Life of Pi, Ang Lee lets the viewer realize their own faith through one of the most viscerally pleasing films of the past decade, delivering something that will amaze visually and then make you think back on what you saw, afterwards. There are very few films that are able to do what Lee has done here because even if the audience is completely atheist, there’s something to get out of this film about the search for God. Anchored by an amazing performance from Suraj Sharma as Pi, the film relays an incredible story about finding one’s self in the darkest moments while astounding with the best 3D visuals ever seen on screen.
Pi (or Piscine Molitar, the name given to him by his father deriving from a swimming pool a family friend loved) is at odds with himself as he tries to grow up and find his path in life. Where he finds this path is through divine intervention as he’s propelled into the worst situation imaginable: being trapped on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. This story is narrated through the point of view of Pi many years after his harrowing journey, as a writer (Rafe Spall) listens to Pi’s description of the events that occurred with the hopes of turning it into a novel. These moments feel alright, but the real reason most will be going to see Life of Pi is to watch this “unfilmable” novel be turned into the awe-inspiring film that it is. Yes, the introduction of the writer character creates a worrisome environment to base the film’s foundations on, and then throwing religion into the mix would typically turn off many more, but the movie handles religion in a way that is not forceful or frustrating. It merely gives the option to believe, and tells the story of how Pi found faith in the most hopeless of situations.
Ultimately, the movie works on two planes: as a visual feast, and as a film with a message. There may not be crazy amounts of dialogue in this movie, especially while Pi is lost at sea, but it’s not until the end of the film when you reflect back on what you’ve seen that it becomes clear just how much depth and detail is in every wonderful shot. What may be the story of a boy trapped on a boat with a tiger to some, will be seen as a human trying to find himself and faith. Really that’s what the film is about, testing the strength of faith, but there’s so many audiences this film can reach for. The movie has a depth to it that makes it more adult-oriented, but it also works as a family film despite there being some grisly deaths that may only be suggestively shown, but most will be able to piece together that tigers get hungry and thus need to eat things whether they want to be eaten or not. The power of Life of Pi comes from its ability to place you in this world, give you something to believe in, and then make you question it all by the end of the film. The fact that it can astound visually and as a strong narrative is a testament to the power of film.
The true crowning achievement though is that Life of Pi delivers some of the best visuals ever caught on film, and definitely the best 3D I have ever seen. Every shot has massive amounts of depth, and the film tries so many different techniques to wow the audience such as aspect ratio changes and simplistic shots that create a lot of depth. The film plays out like a fantasy film, and because of that, it gets to do some outlandish stuff while not being over-the-top in its delivery. The flying fish sequence that was shown before Prometheus is one of the best shots in the film, but then there’s plenty of other moments that will forever be embedded in my head. A nighttime scene involving bioluminescence and a whale flying out of the water has a massive scope that is hard to compare to, but then there’s a scene of Pi watching the ship he escaped from as it sinks in the background and he just watches in amazement and horror as it plummets to the depths of the ocean. It varies from simplicity to incredible detail in its execution which makes the movie a powerful vessel for discussion and entertainment.
Briefly, the acting in this film is great with Suraj Sharma playing the teenage Pi, and Irrfan Kahn playing the older Pi, and narrator. Rafe Spall is fine as a mere spectator, but his dullness will put many off. However, I found him to be mirroring the book he was writing, hungry for more information and constantly trying to digest and process the story being told to him. And all the secondary characters are well-done, though I always find it hard to enjoy seeing Gerard Depardieu in any film.
Life of Pi is something that will be marveled at for many years to come, perhaps not as much as other 3D films like Avatar, but it definitely deserves more attention than that because of its depth and transformation in the end from mere visual feast to a story about the power of faith. In terms of films that truly push the medium forward, Life of Pi is one of the few this year that actually does that because Ang Lee took something that should have flopped massively and turned it into a marvelous feature that invokes meaningful conversations about its message and its execution. While I felt the beginning and end dragged a bit, it didn’t lose any of its ability to leave the audience in a state of deep thought during the credits. This movie is ultimately about reflection, and it’s clear that the intention is for the audience to reflect not only on the film but themselves and how they view faith. It’s not going to change anyone’s religious perspective probably, but it will definitely cause some introspection.