‘Life of Pi’ Review
Bill Westenhofer. Lubo Hristov. David Lauer. Gullaume Rocheron. Depending on your beliefs, you may or may not believe that God created the heavens and earth in seven days -- but I can say with some certainty that those men, a quartet of visual effects supervisors and designers (along with many other talented people) created the wondrous sights of 'Life of Pi.' It took them a lot more than seven days, though.
This story of high seas adventure and survival is intended as a cinematic Rorschach test of faith and belief -- told by a man (Irrfan Khan) who in his youth endured 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean and now recounts those events to a novelist (Rafe Spall) interested in hearing a story that proves the existence of God. As a child living in Pondicherry, India, Piscene "Pi" Patel (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, and finally Suraj Sharma, the Pi of the 227 days and thus most of the film) discovered a love of religion -- all religion. Raised Hindu, he wandered into a Catholic Church on a dare and became interested in Christ. Later, he grew intrigued by Islam. He followed and respected all three religions, and now decades later he tells his tale to the writer as a sort of defense of his open-minded principles.
That tale, based on a novel by Yann Martel and adapted by David Magee, involves how Pi lost his family in a horrific shipwreck -- an astonishingly visceral set piece depicted with awe-inspiring beauty and heartbeat-quickening intensity by director Ang Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and their aforementioned team of visual artists. Pi's father ran a zoo, and all of its animals were aboard the ship when it sank; a few managed to escape into a lifeboat with Pi. There is a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and most importantly a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. For 227 days, they are Pi's only companions as he struggles to survive on canned water and tinned biscuits.
Though they generally receive very little credit from critics or audiences, the effects team is worth singling out in this case; 'Life of Pi' might be the most impressive 'visual effects movie' ever made. It's tricky enough to create something imaginary and convince us it's real; it's even harder to recreate something from nature and pass it off as the genuine article, as this film does with Richard Parker. Quickly you stop looking for the seams, wondering where the stunt animals end and the effects begin. You simply accept what you see. Perhaps that's not as impressive an epiphany as a religious awakening, but it's a satisfying one nonetheless.
Pi and Richard Parker's time lost at sea is full of even more astonishing visuals: incandescent whales, a strange island that seems alive and may be carnivorous, a boat descending to the ocean floor in slow motion, all also brought to life with incredible precision and beauty. The images are more than pretty pictures; their depth and complexity bring us deeper into Pi's story and force us to engage even more completely with the drama. There were times during the film where I found myself leaning forward in my seat, consciously trying to modulate my breathing. Even though its conclusion is never in doubt (we know he survives from the very first scene), Pi's adventure is absolutely riveting -- and so is Lee's visual storytelling.
Some find 'Life of Pi''s ultimate message about faith disappointing at best and disingenuous at worst; last night after leaving the screening, I engaged with a few people on Twitter who were as upset by the film's themes and ideas as they were dazzled by its visuals. Though I can't say I was particularly or profoundly moved by Pi's ultimate lesson to the novelist, I wasn't turned off by it either. His story didn't convince me to believe in any or all gods -- but it did make me believe in the power of cinema, even in the age of digital special effects. If nothing else, that's a significant accomplishment.
'Life of Pi' is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’