In the lead up to the release of “Life of Pi”, I openly wondered why the trailers focused so much on the visuals and gave us so little of the story. In actuality, the trailers gave us essentially ALL of the story. A young man escapes a sinking cargo-liner aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger on board. He then struggles to coexist with the animal and survive the ordeal.
The true subject of the film, however, is something we rarely get in movies, and thus something the film would be reluctant to “sell” in its promos.
In the current day, a struggling writer (Rafe Spall) meets an Canadian from India (Irrfan Khan, the adult Pi), after being told he has a remarkable tale to tell.
Piscine Molitor Patel, “Pi” (Suraj Sharma, Pi at 16), grew up on his family’s zoo in India. As a spiritually curious young boy, he explores Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His father makes attempts to break him of it, to get him to trust in reason and science, and for a time succeeds to an extent. Pi never completely loses his faith, however. Then, during a period of political unrest, his father decides to relocate the family to Canada. They’ll bring the animals of the zoo with them and sell them once they reach North America, fetching a better price and earning enough money to get on their feet in a new country.
Unfortunately, during a raging storm at sea, the cargo-liner they’re aboard sinks. Pi makes his way to lifeboat, but it crashes into the ocean before any other people can board. On board already, or making it on shortly after it’s away, are a small handful of animals, including a Bengal tiger. Obviously a lifeboat is not fit to hold a mini zoo, and indeed, most of the animals cannot coexist. Eventually, only Pi and the tiger are left, uneasily facing off against each other. The tiger, named Richard Parker, is vicious, hungry, and frightened. At first, Pi makes a makeshift raft and tethers it to the lifeboat, so that he can stay out of its reach. But eventually he is forced to try to stay aboard the lifeboat proper.
“Life of Pi” has seamless and believable CGI animal effects. I never questioned Richard Parker, and he was onscreen throughout the entire film. Reportedly, real tigers were used in conjunction with the effects, but in all honesty I’d have trouble telling you when. The CGI was that consistent. There are also multiple scenes where the world looks astonishing. Whether it’s the sky reflecting on the water, or phosphorescent activity below the surface, Director Ang Lee and his effects team break out the paint kit and bring out the beauty and splendor of our planet. At times, it’s breathtaking.
Just because the story is simple – a boy needs to share a lifeboat with a tiger – does not mean it’s not fascinating. Between Pi’s struggles with the tiger, and with the ocean, there are numerous opportunities for action and drama.
“Life of Pi” also has a much more open spirituality than most movies dare. Outside of religious films or films that revolve around illness, few wide-release movies broach the subject of God or spiritualism at all, let alone this openly. “Pi” does. His experiences border on a Job-like ordeal, testing his faith and causing him to open his heart to the wonders of the world. Through his narration, we’re given insight to his spiritual condition and relationship with God. It’s a much deeper subject matter than most films choose to deal with, and they address it directly.
It’s a fascinating theatrical experience. I have to admit, I was completely engrossed. Unfortunately, at the end, the viewer gets their own test of faith. I may, one day, come to think of the denouement as brilliant… to steal a line from the film, “And so it goes with God”. Answers aren’t handed to us, the illusion never parts for long, and there is no faith that arrives “leap free”. For now, though, I’m going to withhold my plusses and restrain my hyperbole until I can get my feet back squarely beneath me with the film.
Regardless, “Life of Pi” is one of the most visually striking films you’ll see all year. Highly recommended. It’s a simple, yet completely engrossing story. And running through the film is a discourse about life and God that few other movies would even choose to address.