Curiosities have been piqued from the planning stages over Ang Lee’s film adaption of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi. Deemed ‘unfilmable’ (a word that is bandied about much less now than it once was), the author’s initial reaction was that ‘They’ve got to be crazy’. Telling the story of a teenage boy who is shipwrecked and finds himself stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker, the novel’s framed narrative, surrealist qualities, religious overtones and largely static location on a raft in the middle of the ocean were all seen as huge problems in making the transition from the page to the screen. Lee’s film pulls all of it off in spectacular style.
The first thing to note is that the visuals here are absolutely jaw-dropping. The opening credits feature a menagerie of beautiful animals and astonishing colours, but the entire film is a masterpiece of colour balance and striking visual manipulation. 3D film-making has become a standard gimmick in the industry, and one that I personally try to avoid wherever possible, but it is used here to great effect. Things do occasionally leap out of the screen, but on the whole the 3D is tastefully employed, adding subtle depth to many ordinary scenes and embellishing the more surreal visuals perfectly (a standout is a near-psychedelic dreamy underwater sequence that plunges to the depths of the ocean, exploring all kinds of trippy glowing sea-life).
Novice 17 year old lead actor Suraj Sharma auditioned for the part of Pi on a whim, but delivers an impressive and very human performance. He is utterly convincing as the unusual young man turned desperate castaway. As for the central problem of keeping a film situated largely on a lifeboat interesting, Lee takes his cue from the novel, focusing on the day to day realism of struggling to survive a shipwreck, but punctuating this narrative with heady surrealism.
The high points are the little victories of survival, the lows are crushingly, nail-bitingly emotional, and in between are some of the most bizarre and beautiful depictions of the natural world imaginable. The juxtaposition of the very real and the very surreal is part of what makes this film so remarkable, a quality emphasised at its conclusion, as the older Pi presents a very plausible alternative storyline that offers an entirely different perspective on the whole experience. This is a masterstroke of Martel’s original storytelling, but transfers well onto film and will resonate with audiences everywhere.
The older Pi states in the film that his story will make the writer who interviews him ‘believe in God’, and there will be a worry that the spiritual aspect of the story will try to convert the viewer, that it will become preachy. This is not the case. The film is totally accessible to all audiences, irrespective of religion, and is simply a beautiful piece of storytelling. Worth it for the visuals alone (see it in 3D), animal lovers and survival nuts alike will adore this, as will just about anybody else. Poignant and near perfectly executed, Life of Pi does not fail to impress.