I’m a big proponent of reading the book before seeing the movie so I felt a bit hypocritical when I plunked down the $15 for my ticket to Life of Pi having no knowledge of the plot except for the snippets I caught in the trailers and the little I knew from my feeble attempt at reading it a few years ago. The novel, by Yann Martel, had won the Man Booker Prize and the movie, directed by Ang Lee, was getting rave review everywhere I looked, so I figured I couldn’t lose.
The movie is about the experiences of a young Indian boy, Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, who is stranded on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker) after the ship carrying Pi and his family sinks in a storm. The story is told through flashbacks and voice-overs by the adult Pi to a fledgling author looking for a story that will make him believe in God. After some tedious exposition that reminded me why I never finished the book, the movie kicks off into the main story: Pi and the tiger alone at sea.
Since Pi is the narrator, we know he eventually survives the ordeal, but even so, you will swear that there is no way he will make it through all of the tribulations he faces. Ang Lee uses 3D technology here the way it is supposed to. You are right there in the midst of a storm that quite literally blows you away and you face off with the Bengal tiger in eye-covering, seat-gripping, terror. But even though the effects are useful in scaring the bejeezus out of the viewers and inducing some simulated motion sickness, the movie also uses it for more than the in-your-face gimmicks. Pi’s experience is not just a gritty story of physical survival, it is a spiritual journey and it is during the calm, pensive moments that the effects are simply breathtaking. One scene in particular, involving thousands of meerkats on a unique island, will leave you scratching your head wondering how on earth they were able to do that. The scenes are so impressive and stunning in their colors and construction that I felt like I was watching a piece of art rather than following a story.
Now, a boy on a boat with an animal for companionship seems to smack of Tom Hanks and his trusted “Wilson,” but trust me, this tiger is no volleyball. I couldn’t figure out how they were able to get a tiger to perform like that until I found out it was all CGI (duh!). But seriously, you will not be able to tell, even in 3D. That tiger was as real as my hand over my eyes and I would not be surprised to see Sharma’s name popping up around awards time.
The movie is a visual feast and an experience that must be watched on the big screen to fully appreciate its power. By telling the story mainly through images rather than narrative, Lee highlights the mystical nature of Pi’s experience and in turn, relies on the viewer to interpret the meaning of the ordeal. For people looking for a relaxing night at the movies, this is not the film to see. This is a movie that will sit with you for days as you mull over the implications left at the ending of the film. It is complex and profound and highly intelligent. But even if you aren’t much of a deep thinker, bring a friend to explain the ending and go for the sheer sensory festival the film provides. Because on its simplest level, the film is beautiful.