Sometimes, it’s just magic. Call it a miracle movie, lightening in a bottle, a game changer; there are an endless amount of cliches that you can apply to Life of Pi, and all of them fit. What matters is this: Ang Lee’s picture is a very, very special film.
Based on Yann Martel’s seemingly unfilmable novel, Life Of Pi is a simple story. A young Indian teen named Pi (short for Piscine, a change that was made after schoolchildren started calling him ‘pissing’), finds himself adrift on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific after the freighter carrying his family and their zoo animals sinks. His only companion aboard the boat is a full grown bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It is best to leave the story there than to continue and unravel any of its secrets.
The sinking itself is astounding. Much like Flight, which also featured a beautifully rendered catastrophe as its catalyst, Life of Pi empties everything in its bag of tricks to shake the fear of God into us as the waves devour Pi’s family and their vessel. Waves roll out of the screen and over the audience, the wind roars with terrible fury, and the blackness of the sea seems becomes a black hole, ready to reach out from the screen and swallow us up.
But what follows the sinking is even more incredible. Ang Lee, actor Suraj Sharma, and some of the best CGI in cinema history combine to create an awe inspiring and journey of spirit and survival. This is a movie that aims at nothing less than probing the purpose of existence, the nature of divinity, and the flaws and strengths of humanity. Life of Pi might not have all the answers to its philosophical musings (how could it?), but it is refreshing to see a film that stares so confidently into the heart of human nature and refuses to back down.
The experience – and it is an experience, more than most other films – is wholly overwhelming. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that Life of Pi features probably the best use of 3D that I’ve ever seen. In terms of giving the film meaningful depth and texture, the only film that compares in Avatar. However, while the technology remains basically the same, with Pi we get to see 3D in the hands of a master filmmaker instead of a confectioner (which Cameron, as much as I enjoy his films, usually is). It is difficult, close to impossible, to imagine how it would look and feel as a flat, two dimensional work.
But 3D can only be as good as the shots that it enhances, and the shots that Lee creates feel almost divine. Oftentimes we see the sky and the sea framed off of one another, creating a universe of rippling clouds and stars, with only a small boat, a boy, and a beast caught in between. Eternal questions are asked, and sometimes answered, through visuals alone; soundless pictures of seascapes and skylines that we almost wish would last forever, so we could stare, love, and wonder at them. The visuals are so strong that the dialogue, much of it a voiceover from Sharma, feels intrusive at times when compared to the gorgeous silence Lee has built.This is a film with moments that we want to live inside of.
Early on in the film, we’re told (via frame narrative) that Pi’s story of survival has the power to make the listener believe in God. I’m not sure if any film has that power on its own, but Life of Pi comes about as close as it can. It will make you believe in something, even if that something is just the power of a story when in the right hands. I don’t know if this is the best movie of the year, or the most accomplished, or how many awards it will win. All of those tags and titles feel irrelevant. What matters is that this film exists, and that anyone who watches it will be better for it. Magic.
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