Life of Pi is based on a 2001 novel of the same name, often thought un-filmable. Taiwanese Director Ang Lee has somehow managed to bring to life an incredibly visceral story and create the most beautiful film I’ve seen all year. The astonishing story makes for a wonderful focus which is given a spectacularly beautiful backdrop, filmed in 3D. For only the second time since the 3D ‘revolution’, (see Hugo 2011) the extra dimension adds to rather than detracts from the story and helps to create a sumptuous world full of incredible sights, great laughs and awful sadness.
A middle aged Indian man now living in Canada is recounting a fantastical story to a Canadian man who is trying to write a book. The Indian, Pi, tells the writer about his childhood in French India where his father owned a zoo. Pi speaks of his deep and profound religious beliefs and discloses that he has found solace in several major religions, something that he was chastised for by his atheist father. When Pi was around sixteen his family made the decision to emigrate to Canada, sell the zoo’s animals and start afresh. On the voyage through the Indian Ocean their ship was struck by a huge storm from which only four survive. Pi is soon left almost alone with just a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker for company, adrift on a vast but beautiful Ocean.
The film begins with an extended montage over the opening credits which depict various species of animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. The shots which Ang Lee creates are astonishing, some of the most beautiful photography I’ve seen and fortunately a sign of things to come from the following two hours. The shots are crisp, sharp and vibrantly coloured and also well designed to make full use of the 3D. Placed over the images is a soothing and charming Indian song. I think I’d have happily just watched a continuation of the opening credits for the full two hours. Later Lee produces shots of such incredible beauty that I was stunned. I have honestly not seen a film that looks this good all year or perhaps ever. I was blown away by the wonderful sight of luminous plankton, giant whales, flying fish and perhaps most of all a sinking ship. Added to all of this is an opening act which takes place in India, my favourite place to see on film. Films make India look like such a vibrant and colourful place where something is always going on and life is lead at what is seemingly a juxtaposed frantic yet relaxed pace. Lee captures some lovely shots of the country here.
THIS PARAGRAPH MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the lead character is involved in a ship wreck which leaves him floating adrift with no one but a Tiger for company. The majority of the film is spent this way as Pi battles the Tiger and the elements for survival. In the Tiger though he finds solace and hope which matches one of the film’s main themes – religion. Pi holds on to his religious ideas throughout his ordeal but luckily it isn’t overly forced. As a staunch atheist, I find myself turned off by films which evoke religion but Life of Pi uses it in a subtle way and doesn’t shove it down the viewer’s throat. Ideas and visual motifs such as a connection or blurring of the lines between water and sky can seem as though when swimming, one is flying or floating through Heaven and there are various similarities between the plot and religious stories. Throughout a lot of the film I put Pi’s continuing survival down to a combination of luck and his own intelligence and resourcefulness but you can read a religious message if you want to. Interestingly the film has what I’d consider to be two endings. I wish the film had ended ten minutes earlier than it did but the addition of a second ending added an interesting idea in to the mix. My girlfriend came up with an interesting idea as to what the ending meant and how the film could be read. She suggested that the second ending could be viewed as a parallel for religion and why people choose to believe something which is fantastical, ridiculous or lacks proof. It can give people hope of rescue from what troubles them and lead them to believe that they have a purpose or mission to fulfil. Religion can also be used to make sense of something for which there is no explanation. For thousands of years natural phenomena and unexplained activity was put in the hands of religion until science and reason slowly but surely shrank the need for a God. In much the same way it could be possible that Pi creates his incredible story as a way of making sense of his ordeal. SPOILERS OVER.
Back to the stunning visuals and something that I noticed several times was that the screen ratio changes at various points during the film. In total four aspect ratios are used over the two hour run time; 1.33:1, 1.85:1, 2.00:1 and in one scene 2.35:1. I noticed a few changes but my girlfriend noticed just the one. They are quite subtle but have a big impact on the way the film is viewed. I’ve never noticed a film change its aspect ratio in such a way though it may well have been done before. For me Lee plays within the confines of his frame, bending the rules to his will in order to capture the perfect image. In one scene flying fish are seen on a collision course with Pi’s lifeboat. During this scene the screen shrinks but the fish themselves are able to fly out of the frame like a comic book cartoon extending beyond the bounds of its panel. This further deepens the image, giving a greater sense of movement. The effect is so good that there were several gasps in the screening I was in and the man next to me actually jumped.
As well as the general look of the film, the special effects used in Life of Pi are also amongst the best I’ve seen this year. For a film that contains so many shots of animals it is incredibly difficult to spot when an animal is real and when it is CGI. There are only a few instances in the entire film when it was obvious that the Tiger was computer generated and they were usually when it was wet. The Tiger’s appearance in general was remarkable and very detailed. The animal has weight to it which helps to create a realistic look. So often effects will look great but will have a floating feeling to them which is almost always combated here. Other animals are used earlier on in the film and are just as realistic. As I’ve already mentioned the ship sinking scene is a visual highlight and once again an area where the physical and computer generated effects are difficult to distinguish. Some of the more vibrant, fantastical and dreamlike shots too are wonderfully realised. A scene in which Pi peers out of his boat imagining his way down to the bottom of the Ocean is a highlight, as is the much trailed luminous jellyfish scene. The scenes featuring Meerkats were also extraordinary although it is impossible for a British person to think about those animals these days without thinking of fucking car insurance.
Suraj Sharma is seen in virtually every scene from the second act onwards and gives a terrific performance. I can’t fault him at all. For me though Ang Lee and Cinematographer Claudio Miranda are the stars. Together they have created a film which is so beautiful that for me it is as close to art as film can get. The story is incredibly compelling and you can read into it what you like. If I had to fault the film then I’d suggest that the frequent returns to the present were there for exposition only and that the extended ending took some of the shine off but otherwise Life of Pi is a wonderful film that I suggest everyone watches and in a rare turnaround, I suggest you watch it in 3D.