The visual pleasures delivered by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are so immense that it is difficult to believe the source material was a 2001 blockbuster novel of the same name, by author Yann Martel. In an era of filmmaking where big event films seem to be released almost once a week Life of Pi stands out for delivering genuine spectacle and awe. Digital, 3D and CGI technologies may have once impressed audiences simply by being present in a film, but now it takes true mastery of cinematic style to dazzle keen cinema enthusiasts rather than just placating the casual cinema goers who are looking to pass the time.
Lee is not showing off the new cinematic technology, but using it to deliver emotionally engaging spectacle. The 3D boasts some of the most impressive depth-of-field to date, but otherwise key sequences have an almost stripped back feel to them. Major scenes unfold with neither heavy signposting nor shock tactics. The editing is restrained so that the onscreen action never becomes incoherent while at the same time not drawing attention to itself through excessive long takes. Music cues are strategically held back to complement the emotional response elicited from the audience rather than coax it. Life of Pi is not a film asking to be marvelled at, it is a film that sutures you into its beauty and excitement without you even realising it.
The narrative and style of Life of Pi is heavily indebted to magic realism, where elements traditionally associated as being outside known reality are incorporated seamlessly into the text. In cinema such a technique is often used to heighten the way character subjectivity is expressed as well as suggesting the distorted nature of memory. Life of Pi uses magic realism to do both these things, but not to suggest some kind of interior reality or to comment on the nature of perception, but to overtly create an alternate reality in contrast to what is commonly accepted as known reality. This dynamic is then extended to comment on the nature of religion and how people relate to it.
After a lengthy prologue to establish Pi as a character, who is played by Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, the main action takes place on a lifeboat adrift at sea. As the sole survivor of a shipping disaster, Pi is stranded with a small collection of animals from his father’s zoo; most notably a full-grown tiger named Richard Parker. Told in flashback by a much older Pi (Irrfan Khan) there are two versions of what happens to Pi during his time at sea. One version is magical, takes up the majority of the film and is told predominantly with the film’s stunning visuals. The other version is far bleaker and only spoken during a scene that takes less than five minutes. It’s not difficult to see which version the film privileges.
Similar to Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002) – in a scene that playful paraphrases John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – where the audience is directly told ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend’, Life of Pi favours the legend. Furthermore, it depicts the power of storytelling as an explanation for the attraction toward religious belief, in what could easily be mistaken as the film taking a pro-religious stance. By presenting the comforting way that stories can makes sense of the world around us, Life of Pi demonstrates the allure of religion. The film doesn’t necessarily endorse the type of religious belief/storytelling that it gloriously depicts, but it reveals how attractive it is and how under some circumstances it is completely necessary. In this regard the film offers a very sophisticated and compassionate understanding of the importance of faith to some people.
As somebody enamoured with three different faith systems, Pi as a child is often in conflict with his pragmatic father who represented science, medicine and modernity. A key conflict is when the pair argue about the nature of Richard Parker – is the tiger an animal who only acts on instinct or does it have a soul? Cold pragmatism tells us one thing while a strong spiritual belief tells us something else. This tension is explored throughout most of the film, most interestingly through the visuals depicting the natural world. Nature is continually represented as something both beautiful and dangerous. So many moments of visual wonder are then contrasted with reminders that the natural world can be indifferent and cruel, even during an extended dream/hallucination sequence where the film visually provides an all-things-are-connected type message. The repeated motif of figures floating in crystal clear water that reflect the sky so vividly that the figures seem to be drifting in space suggests that humanity is part of a bigger whole, but also that every one of us is ultimately alone.
Nature as beautiful or nature as indifferent, bleak facts or magical stories, science or faith, connected or alone, instinct or animals with souls – these are the dynamics explored by every aspect of Life of Pi. Even though the film ultimately favours a magical version of events, certainly in relation to what happens to Pi, it still comes with two important lines of dialogue towards the start of the film designed to keep things in perspective: ‘Decide for yourself what you’ll believe’ and ‘Don’t let the spectacle and pretty lights fool you.’