“The Life of Pi” is adapted from the acclaimed novel of the same name by author Yann Martel. The book is a spiritual adventure that supposedly proves the existence of god, and was thought to be “unfilmable”. Even with such a reputation, here it is as a movie with Ang Lee, director of such diverse films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Sense & Sensibility”, and “Hulk”, at the helm. Even still, it begs the question, does the spiritual voyage of a boy called Pi make a powerful a visual journey, or was it better left to text and the imagination?
The movie is told via recollection, as a young author seeking inspiration interviews a man called Piscine Molitor, or "Pi" (Irrfan Khan), about his ordeal as a younger man. As a storyteller, Pi starts at the very beginning, recounting the events surrounding his birth, as well as character defining anecdotes from his childhood. It goes a long way in establishing the storyteller narrative, allowing the more fantastical elements develop naturally. Early on, we’re introduced to Pi’s fascination with religions, and he becomes interested in all of them, studying Christianity, Hinduism and Islam equally.
His family owns a zoo; one which houses all sorts of colorful animals, but the main attraction is a Tiger, aptly named Richard Parker (and there’s a story behind that name as well). When his father decides to sell the zoo animals and move his family to Canada, they do so on a large freighter crossing the pacific (with an angry chef played by bloated Gerard Depardieu). The ship sails into a nasty storm and sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with only a few of the animals for company, though they don’t last long with one of the passengers being Richard Parker.
The rest of the movie is one of survival and isolation, with Pi and Richard Parker alone on a boat in the middle of nowhere, doing their best to stay alive and adrift in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Ang Lee captures the simple story with a beautiful eye for color and scenery. The cinematography, though mostly computer rendered, is still gorgeous to look at, as is everything that graces the screen. Visually speaking, this is one of the best looking movies of the year. Even the 3D, something which I almost always detest in any movie, is fantastic here. It accentuates the depth in any given scene, even making the non fantastical sequences seem unreal and mystical. This is no mere gimmick, and it’s bar none the best 3D experience I’ve had (and for someone that hates 3D, that’s saying a lot).
The visual effects are pretty incredible in this, and there are many different effects to take in. There are the background and weather effects, such as the intense storm sequences and the mystical island of meerkats, all of which are believable. There are also the animal effects, and these range from the passengers aboard his lifeboat to the myriad of sea life they encounter on the ocean. Even though it’s often very clear what is and isn’t CG, it’s all nonetheless consistent and blends into the overall imagery seamlessly. Given the level of emotional conveyance that computer generated characters are capable of these days, it should come as no surprise the depth and emotional attachment that the Tiger can warrant from the audience. The life and death dance that Pi plays with this creature is the conflict and emotional center of the movie, and it’s easy to feel something for their unique, if strained, relationship.
The story Pi tells is one both spiritual and emotional, and is set up with the idea that the writer will be made to “believe in god” by the end. Given the nature of the film and the ambiguity of the ending, its presents this idea of faith and belief without forcing it on you. The fantasy of his journey offers something that a “truth” or more realistic version can’t. Given that there’s no way to determine what actually occurred while Pi was at sea, it’s up to the listener as to what they want to make of his story or whether or not they can believe all that he says.
It’s more than possible that Pi is an unreliable narrator, but the “realistic version” of the events of his journey is far less spectacular and considerably more depressing to hear. It’s no wonder why people would choose to believe in something magical, albeit farfetched, when the truth is so painful. But then, who’s to say that’s really the truth?