Life of Pi[i] fulfills all of the promises that James Cameron’s Avatar[ii] made. Ang Lee (of Brokeback Mountain / Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) makes a beautiful, effects-heavy film that isn’t about action, but serenity. Lee’s film is even more gorgeous than its spiritual predecessors[iii], earning the right to use the borderline gimmick 3-D technology. Films like Life of Pi use 3-D to make their worlds more real, not pop-out of too-dark backgrounds, and really, without the technology that James Cameron helped pioneer, they would not be as successful.
But this is in no way a James Cameron film. It is created from Ang Lee’s gentle mind and with caring hands, never being harsh or abrasive or surprisingly even preachy given that Life of Pi is a faith-based film. A surefire bet to dominate the technical awards during the Oscars nominations on January 10th, Life of Pi uses special effects to create a wondrous tone poem that earns its sentiment through high-stakes and through amazing compositions.
The movie does start a little slow, but as soon as the teenager named Pi, and his family (and their zoo), set sail to North America, it explodes into a surreal journey of color and emotion. Pi, the Islamic Catholic Hindu boy who leads the story, survives a spectacular storm that somehow sinks the ship that takes his family with it[iv]. On a lifeboat, Pi is stuck with an injured Zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and of course, a Bengal tiger hilariously named Richard Parker that is crafted from the most photo-realistic CGI yet exising. After a chaotic and animalistic battle between the animals, causing Pi to flee to a smaller raft of his own creation, drifting near the lifeboat, Richard Parker remains alone. The constant standoff between Richard Parker and Pi is the heart of the movie, and it is some of the most unique filmmaking of the year. The film is never dull, even though the setting is the same through over half of it.
I’ve constantly talked about cinematography this year, and Ang Lee’s Director of Photography Claudio Miranda is another amazing cameraman who in a lesser year would have a run-away and deserved Oscar for Cinematography. The camera work inside the sinking ship, on the lifeboat, the final, Kubrick-esque scenes with Pi in the hospital bed, and even the opening credits shows that Miranda has an eye for the thrilling, the extravagant, and the serene. With such a wide palate of visual flavors, no one can argue that Life of Pi is anything but the most beautiful film of the year.
Where the debate begins is whether or not Life of Pi has a worthwhile story and message. The answer is yes, Life of Pi does provide a compelling narrative, which is mostly thanks to its unique setting. Putting a boy on a boat with a tiger, faced with obstacles that should dwindle his strong faith, whether through starvation or storms or mythical vampiric islands, is incredibly compelling. The pacing once Pi gets on the lifeboat is flawless, no matter how shakily it started, and once you get down to the controversial ending, you are faced with a legitimate moral quandary.
*SPOILER* This quandary is the debate. Is manipulation a good thing? The film takes a side, but by bringing up the idea that the fantasy that Pi has given the audience or a brutal “realistic” story, the film asks us to accept that fantasy and faith are superior to accepting a terrible world for what it is. Some will call cop-out, but it is necessary to end the story in this fashion. Pi needs purpose, and there is no way a fantasy story will make anyone believe in God, not even C.S. Lewis’s, as he promises the writer interviewing older Pi throughout the film. If those who aren’t religious roll their eyes at his manipulation, they would be forgetting what religion is. It is manipulation. Meditation is self-manipulation of our sense. Psychology and psychiatry are manipulations of our brains. Art is manipulation, especially cinema, because it sets us up to believe the fiction before us is real. Miranda’s cold and symmetrical shot of Pi being interrogated by the Japanese insurance men gives us the cold reality, with tears and emotional scarring for a lifetime, in contrast to the wonder of Pi befriending and caring for and protecting himself from a Bengal tiger. Lee earns this manipulation by arguing for a manipulation that isn’t there to control the masses, but to tell us that this is a world worth living in. It is a life affirming manipulation. *END SPOILER*
In the end, Life of Pi is not about religion at all, but like Hugo before it, it is about film and stories. Subtly, Ang Lee, using the screenplay by David Magee based on Yann Martel’s novel, compares religion to these arts. We need these fantastic stories to cope with true evils, that truly happened, and we remember that they happened, but make no sense at all. Why did Pi’s family die? He doesn’t know. Why did he have to be stuck at the open sea for 227 days? He doesn’t know. But he knows what he likes to believe. He likes to believe that he is the tiger, and that the tiger can accomplish anything.
I give Life of Pi a lite 9.
[i] YPOIWer Robby is taking reigns over a Silver Lining Playbook review that I was going to write for this 2nd part to my Thanksgiving Weekend film review feature. He’ll do better than I would have.
[ii] Avatar was a rehash of stories you’ve heard before in a new setting that was striking, and because it felt so much like other films in terms of story, it failed to connect as much as its director James Cameron wanted it to with the audience. Everyone talked about how good the effects were, and not the film itself. Underneath the amazing visual effects, the movie was empty. Avatar existed to pave the way for superior films, and for that, we should thank him.
[iii] The spiritual predecessors: obviously Avatar, but also Scorsese’s Hugo and even Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
[iv] Eat your heart out, Titanic.