I first saw Life of Pi in immersive, delicate and dreamlike 3-D, and left the cinema enraptured by the story I’d seen. The spectacle of the film offered adventure, emotion, allegorical insight, and stunning visuals, all the while speaking to transcendent philosophical themes.
Life of Pi not only delivers a technical masterclass in how to use 3-D but also offers a stark illustration of wonderful and visionary storytelling that poetically navigates the fine line between misery, menace and majesty. We are treated to an amplified fantastical film, the entire phenomenon serving to underpin the core story and show it to gleaming effect. Ang Lee and his team capture the spirit of Yann Martel’s novel – its emphasis on spirituality, storytelling and survival – modestly submitting something hopeful, reflective and pure, with quietly human humour.
Life of Pi tells the unbelievable tale of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) who, while journeying on a cargo ship from India to Canada with his family and their menagerie of animals, is thrown into the Pacific Ocean during a shipwrecking storm and survives in a lifeboat with only Richard Parker the tiger for company. We learn Pi’s story from his own mouth, years later, as he relays the account to a Canadian author – supposedly Yann Martel (Rafe Spall) – who has sought him out to learn a story that will make him believe in God. Through adult Pi’s (Irrfan Khan) narration and on-screen dramatization we discover how the 16-year-old polytheist survives 227 days adrift, confronting mortality and spirituality. Director Ang Lee thought this was a “pretty impossible movie to make technically” and it is easy to understand why.
He pulled it off. It is not merely this author who loved the film, as attested by the global critical and commercial success and attention that ensued despite the lack of a Hollywood star. Among other accolades, Life of Pi received 11 Oscar nominations and attained Best Director (but not Best Feature Film, reminiscent of Lee’s Brokeback Mountain experience), Best Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Best Visual Effects (Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott) and Best Original Score (Mychael Danna).
So we have a beautiful and enigmatic film featuring a considered use of 3-D wielded with a controlled and assured hand. It teems with splendorous images and imagery; a storm scene cresting in the eerily tranquil image of Pi’s transfixed silhouette against the drowning ship, motionless salt plain-esque water reflecting the sky above, a whale emerging through waters swarming with luminous jellyfish, fantastical universes within Krishna’s mouth and the ocean’s depths… I could go on. But what is it, exactly, that makes it great?
Underpinning Life of Pi’s splendour is Lee’s impeccable directing and David Magee’s elegant, gently humorous script. The former’s versatile elegance works so wonderfully; it is well M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet declined to direct. Lee institutes themes without imposing them and establishes a smooth and charming atmosphere from the zoological beginning to the crafty and oblique conclusion. He channels transcendence and spiritual symbols as a source of emotion to create an epic ambience. The film is continually interesting in his confident control; Life of Pi’s potentially mundane lifeboat scenes, containing one speaking character, are unique, kinetic and compelling. 3-D is used delightfully as a storytelling and framing device, subtly creating an immersive aquatic environment and novel theatrical experience (see: scope-creating 2:35:1 aspect ratio change during the flying fish scene).
David Magee untangles Martel’s curious story and central messages for the silver screen to create a well-paced and authentic – albeit less violent – screenplay that is spiritual but not dogmatic or overbearing. He rhythmically unwinds the story and teleological issues (such as life as a story, the relativity of truth, and evolution through survival) with meticulously measured skill and perfect structure, fluctuating perfectly between emotion, insight and humour to strengthen the ambiguity and clout of the close. However, the essential beauty of Magee’s rich and moving writing lies in its unadulterated excellence which allows all the actors to shine and bolsters Sharma in his debut role.
Some wonderful examples:
“I never knew a small piece of shade could bring me so much happiness; that a pile of tools… might become my greatest treasures, or that knowing Richard Parker was here might ever bring me peace.”
“I struggled to shore and fell upon the sand. It was warm and soft. Like pressing my face against the cheek of God.”
“I’ve told you two stories about what happened out on the ocean. Neither explains the sinking of the ship and no one can prove which story is true and which is not. In both stories the ship sinks, my family dies and I suffer.” “True,” “So which story do you prefer?” “The one with the tiger- that’s the better story.” “Thank you. And so it goes with God.”
We are left with a bittersweet smile. It is no surprise that Yann Martel was “delighted” with the film.
The cinematography and score showcased in Life of Pi significantly buttress the screenplay and direction. Crucially, Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda maximises the film and its emotions, vividly crafting the myriad real and imaginative worlds to produce scenes of immense beauty. He assisted in the creation of a water tank in order to maximise lighting and technical potential, however most impressively Miranda demonstrates unswervingly brilliant light choices. In the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, light is frequently what offers depth and interest. Miranda maximises the underwater scenes with 3-D, for instance placing Pi on the audience plane to create distance in the drowning ship scene.
When discussing the emotional and aesthetic power behind Life of Pi it is worth pointing out the stunning original score. Mychael Danna, who has many gems in his musical annals including Little Miss Sunshine and (500) Days of Summer, employs Indian sounds to construct an energetic and unique soundtrack which adds contrasting movement to visually tranquil scenes and establishes powerful emotional themes.
Meanwhile the most observable talent exhibited is through characterisation achieved by means of both individual performances and special effects. The international cast are uniformly excellent. Suraj Sharma is convincing and committed as adolescent Pi, devastating the audience with his desperate screams and more quiet despair. The central dialogue between two soul searchers possesses all the necessary gravitas, chemistry and understated charm. Irrfan Khan’s rich voice is perfect for storytelling while his eyes convey joy as well as barely banked sadness. He lets the lofty writing sing while simultaneously bringing it down to earth. Rafe Spall’s affable and quietly rapacious writer is wonderfully underplayed and contains a tinge of sadness to mirror but not intrude upon Pi’s story.
It is testament to the Rhythm & Hues VFX studio that the special effects also offer unforgettable characterisation that is both realistic and somehow larger-than-life, a poignant part of our story given their concurrent upset and bankruptcy (see: Life After Pi). Richard Parker is so spine-tinglingly real it is hard to spot the differences between the very hi-tech CGI and the few authentic shots. The tiger, never anthropomorphised, demonstrates fear, threat, hunger, languor and suffering, its muscles and movements painstakingly constructed with immense attention to detail. Amazingly the ocean becomes a character as well, and what a visually staggering character and set piece it is, dominating 3/5th of running time and ranging from beautifully serene calm to terrifying fury, always indomitable. For further astounding special effects details click here.
Ang Lee delivers a magical masterclass in storytelling and visual flair, the ultimate in adventure and drama. I love Life of Pi… yes, because of the wonderful and ground-breaking 3-D and yes, due to the delightful direction and, that’s right, thanks to the miraculously imaginative cinematography, soundtrack, acting and effects, all of which strengthen the transcendent tale. However the core of its genius resides in the essential story which is expertly augmented for cinematic purposes by David Magee. Embrace your metaphysical side. Life of Pi is an unmissable film.