Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussein, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu
Running Time: 127 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Ang Lee's Life of Pi starts as one kind of story, only to end as an entirely different and more complex one. But it's everything that happens in between that'll generate the most discussion. Of 2012's end of the year releases, it's undoubtedly the one that leaves you with the most talk, think and maybe even argue about after the final credits roll. Both in terms of the technology and the story being told with it, which is of surprising substance. While I'm still generally very lukewarm on the use (and sometimes abuse) of CGI in movies today, there's no denying it's harnessed here in a way that works in tandem with the material to create an experience that can't easily be dismissed or forgotten. Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel has frequently showed up on those lists of popular books that have long been considered "unfilmable." And after watching it I can completely see why. This is really tricky material and it's a credit to Ang Lee that he's somehow able to make it sing on screen, juggling visual and thematic elements that would have sunk many other filmmakers.
When a novelist (Rafe Spall) is urged to interview a middle-aged Indian immigrant named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) he's told that the story he's about to tell is literally so amazing it will make him believe in God. Through flashbacks we see Pi's childhood growing up in Pondicherry, where his family owned a zoo. He was born Piscine Molitor, a name for which he was relentlessly teased at school ("Pissing") before eventually changing it to Pi, after the mathematical symbol. Raised Hindu, he shocks his mother (Tabu) and father (Adil Hussein) by announcing he's also converting Christianity and Islam, choosing to now follow all three religions because he "just wants to love God." When Pi turns 16 his father decides they're moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba and selling the zoo animals when they get there. This is a blow to Pi who has not only fallen in love with a local girl but has taken an interest in the animals, specifically a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. But while Pi and his family are aboard the Japanese freighter, a storm hits, and he's suddenly lost at sea with the dangerous animal as his only companion. And that's when the story really begins.
Without the benefit of seeing the film in 3D, the opening act is a little jarring to watch when Lee cuts back and forth between the present day framing device and the flashbacks to Pi's childhood. You can tell these scenes are playing with depth in a way that can't be fully appreciated watching at home in a two-dimensional format on a standard TV. There's also a generous amount of voiceover narration setting the story up, so without the 3D format acting as distraction, the prologue can sometimes feel as if we're listening to an audio book on film. These may seem like big complaints but they're actually quite minor when you consider all this takes up only about an eighth of the running time and the script expertly sets the stage for Pi's ordeal at sea. Much of what initially occurs may seem to be a head-scratcher in terms of how it relates to what's coming, and to some could even come off as quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo. But the film's greatest trick is how it disproves that initial skepticism with a straight-up survival story in the vain of Cast Away or Into The Wild, before again returning us to where we started with a final emotional punch to the gut.
From the trailers and rumblings about the novel, I was under the impression that, no matter how fanciful it seems, Pi would form a close friendship with the dangerous Richard Parker as he battles to survive. Instead, their relationship is depicted more as one of reluctant co-existence and mutual respect in which Pi must carefully consider every move he makes as not to be put in a position where he could be eaten by the tiger. With limited means of obtaining food, that's a concern David Magee's script wisely considers every step of the way no matter how tight the two become. There's always a distance there and Pi's journey is as much about overcoming his own fears as it is surviving. Of course, we really don't realize the full extent of that idea until the film's final lap. But in the meantime we're treated to some truly mind-blowing visuals and one of the best CGI animal creations to be put on screen in Richard Parker, who at no point looks and moves like anything other than a real, living, breathing tiger. If it's true that movie technology had to catch up so the book's events could be done justice, then clearly it has.
Claudio Miranda's cinematography won the Academy Award and it's undeniably beautiful. Does it look like anything resembling reality? Kind of, but not really. Should it even matter in this situation? That, I'm even less sure about. And of course there's no way of us knowing how much of the film's look was enhanced by computers in post-production. Should we care when the final result is this good? It's an interesting debate, but not one that makes or breaks this film. It's the story that does that and how well Lee uses this technology to tell it. Needless to say, it makes it. What isn't up for debate is newcomer Suraj Sharma's performance, a young man who hasn't acted in his life and now must do it against a green screen and a CGI tiger. He has to do everything and does so without you being able to notice any of it. The framing device is the weaker part of the picture but the great character actor Irrfan Khan quietly leaves it all up on the screen in his few crucial as his adult counterpart.
It's impossible to discuss the film without talking about the "big twist," which is probably a misleading way to describe it. In an effort to talk about it without actually doing so, I'll just say that the development that occurs toward the end of the picture is a game-changer in every sense, causing you to re-think and re-feel everything that came before. It's hard to think of instance where one's reaction to a film depends entirely on who you are and what you bring or don't bring to it. When Pi tells the writer that his story "will make you believe in God" you can't help but think he's also talking to us. I'm not sure it does all that or is likely to convert anyone, but it comes closer than it has any right to in philosophically arguing for the existence and purpose of religion while still somehow not being overtly religious in any way. And that the movie doesn't pick a side or necessarily separate any one God or religion from another will probably upset some. What it instead seems to be arguing for is a belief in anything that helps give you the courage to get through. By the film's closing moments we're left with the possibility that something may not have happened when we were led to believe did. But it isn't manipulative. We can still believe it or we can choose not to. Life of Pi bravely splits the audience into two camps, letting us make of the events what we will. It's rare in a big budget film so dependent on modern technology to challenge us like that, encouraging us to carry on the discussion well after Pi's journey concludes.