It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than five years since Avatar changed the way the world watches movies. Sure, lash out against the Na’vi all you want, but James Cameron’s otherworldly film pushed 3-D into the mainstream and was the catalyst for the construction or conversion of thousands of movie theaters around the globe.
Of course, there’s been quite a bit of resistance to 3-D, and not without cause. So many of the films we’ve seen since Avatar were shot in 2-D and morphed into 3-D in hopes of collecting more at the till. Sure, that’s crass, but we must remember that the technology is still in its infancy, and truly talented filmmakers are only beginning to explore the possibilities. Last year Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Wim Wenders (Pina) and Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) all released 3-D films that pushed the boundaries and used the technology as a way to tell their stories.
Now comes Ang Lee with his latest movie, Life of Pi, which raises the bar for 3-D and simply must be seen in that format. It’s a stunningly beautiful film, even if it isn’t quite able to accomplish the task it sets for itself.
Indeed, that task is a hard one. In the opening moments, we’re told by an inquisitive writer (Rafe Spall) that Pi, played by the veteran Bollywood actor Irrfan Khan, has a story that will make one believe in God. That story is told mostly in flashback, as Pi, who lives in Montreal, recounts his childhood in India, where he helped his father run a small zoo. Pi’s a precocious boy, introspective, intelligent and fascinated by the nature of spirituality—so much so that he finds himself worshipping as a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim all at the same time, a practice derided by many, including his own father, a man of science and practicality.
That much prayer isn’t enough to keep the zoo afloat, however, and in Pi’s teenage years (played at that age by Suraj Sharma), times get tough, and his dad decides to emigrate with his family to Canada, where he’ll sell the animals in order to give his clan a head start. This means booking passage for the family and the menagerie on a Japanese steamer ship, which runs into rough weather and sinks.
Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat—alone, that is, except for an injured zebra, an aging orangutan, a nasty hyena and Richard Parker, the zoo’s Bengal tiger. Soon, the other three animals are dead, and Pi is adrift, literally, with nothing but a vicious predator for company. Somehow, they survive together. For months.
That narrative stretch is the film’s strength. Pi’s desperate circumstances and abject loneliness is coupled with the immense beauty of his surroundings, which provide a stark contrast to the constant terror the boy feels because of the tiger. It’s an intense period of self-exploration and spiritual enlightenment, and Lee’s use of 3-D gives the experience even more of an epic sense of fantasy. It’s a visual technology used entirely in the service of the story, and it turns Life of Pi into a sumptuous feast for the eyes without taking away from Pi’s horrific experience.
Despite being taken from Martel’s novel, the framing device of the elder Pi telling his story feels a bit lazy in terms of the film’s structure, but Khan is such a terrific actor that you might not care. The movie doesn’t delve as deeply into the book’s examination of science co-existing with religion, but how could it?
I won’t say that the movie made me believe in God, but it did remind me that the power of cinema can be a beautiful one, and this Thanksgiving, I’m certainly thankful for Life of Pi.