LIFE OF PIDirector: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Run Time: 127 mins
Opens: 29 November 2012
Rating: PG - Some Frightening Scenes
As a framing device, we have an author (Rafe Spall) visiting Piscene Molitor “Pi” Patel (Khan), who sets the stage with some backstory, including his relationship with his parents, his encounters with various faiths and the origins of his peculiar name. Then, he recounts for the writer a life-changing event: his getting stranded at sea for 227 days on a lifeboat alongside a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. 16-year-old Pi (Sharma) must learn to survive not only the harshness of the open ocean, but a hungry big cat too, as he embarks on an adventure that is as much spiritual and emotional as it is physical.
Life of Pi has been described as a “spiritual odyssey”, a coming-of-age film of “magical realism” dealing with faith and philosophical themes. Now, all this makes it sound lofty and inaccessible and may turn off many a viewer. It’s a good thing then that Lee has succeeded in making a deep, complex film very accessible and appealing. The first part of the film, in which an adult Pi speaks about his past, draws the viewer into a somewhat heightened, fantastical world, preparing them for the adventure ahead.
While Life of Pi isn’t one of those head-scratchingly confusing arthouse films, it’s also as far from your typical blockbuster as you can get – it’s not a movie for the particularly impatient, and is one of those “experiential”-type films that you need to just soak in. One could also describe Life of Pi as sort of a surrealistic buddy road trip movie – like in every such film; there are two characters on a journey, whose relationship is essential to the plot. It’s just that instead of, say, two stoners in a beat-up old car; it’s a boy and a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat. Now, before you begin groaning, let it be known that Lee’s famous visual flair is in full force here: this is probably the most-gorgeous looking film of the year and a breathtaking technical achievement in every regard. From a harrowing shipwreck to a whale leaping out of plankton-illuminated waters, it’s practically a parade of one awe-inspiring image after the other.
The framing device of an adult Pi telling his story to the writer is similar to that used in Titanic, and Spall and Khan put in commendable supporting performances, their relatively mundane meeting providing contrast to the larger-than-life odyssey that forms most of the movie. For the bulk of the film however, Pi is played by first-time actor Sharma, who beat out 3,000 other hopefuls for the part. He very nearly missed out too, as he wasn’t initially interested in auditioning, having tagged along for his younger brother’s audition. He gamely takes on the Herculean task of carrying a huge film (almost) all by his lonesome, something which would be daunting to any actor, let alone one with no prior film experience. Furthermore, Sharma spends most of the film acting opposite nothing, which isn’t an easy thing to do.
You probably won’t realise he is acting against nothing though, because of how incredibly lifelike Richard Parker the tiger and the other animals in the film look. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm and Hues Studios and his team have created a digital tiger that captures all the nuances of the real thing, every snarl, crouch and lunge feeling suitably animalistic and not plasticky or artificial as it well could have been. Extensive visual effects work was also used to make it look convincingly like Pi and Richard Parker were out on the open ocean, when in reality the film was shot in several water tanks in an abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan. Many films have come under fire for an overuse of computer-generated imagery, but along comes this film that serves as a perfect example for how the technology can be used as an effective storytelling tool.
3D has also been the target of similar accusations, and not without reason. However, Lee’s use of stereoscopic filmmaking is markedly artful and in many places adds to the otherworldly feel of Pi and Richard Parker’s sea voyage. There’s even a moment where the tiger lunges out of the screen – it could be seen as gimmicky, but is actually quite fun. Shooting the film in 3D was one of many elements that made Life of Pi a really difficult film to put together – animals, water, “unfilmable” source material and 3D on top of all of that?
Lee has admitted that this was the toughest film he’s had to work on, but he and the cast and crew of Life of Pi can rest assured that they’ve been amply rewarded with something of a masterpiece. If there’s any major thing this reviewer didn’t quite enjoy of the film, it would be the film’s attempt to incorporate the “twist ending” of the book, which seems to slightly undermine everything which came before. In the end, however, this is that rare movie which strikes a balance between the epic and the intimate, pure and refined in its storytelling – what movies are meant to be.
SUMMARY: It is, indeed, a wonderful Life – and certainly deserving of more than 3.142 stars.
RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS