Most of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi is set on a lifeboat. The two occupants of the lifeboat are a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. For this reason, the novel has often been described as “unfilmable.” As it turns out, this description is horribly inaccurate. With Ang Lee behind the camera and $120 million at his disposal, the book is very filmable indeed.
That the movie is a visual tour de force is evident from the outset. In the first 20 minutes alone, we are treated to two 3D set pieces that easily represent the most astonishing use of the medium to date. In the first sequence, the narrator, a grown-up Pi living in Montreal, recounts to a novelist (who looks suspiciously like Yann Martel) how he earned his name. He tells the story of how his uncle visited Paris and was so impressed by a pool there—the famous Piscine Molitor—that his father decided to name his child after it. It’s easy to understand why the uncle found the pool so impressive. As filmed by Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), the impossibly bright and colourful pool joins certain sections of Middle Earth and Oz on the list of “Top 10 Movie Places I’d Like To Visit.” A shot of the uncle swimming laps reaches the same level of visual poetry as the treetop fight sequence in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, still Ang Lee’s most breathtaking film.
In the second sequence, Pi describes how the ship that was carrying him, his family, and his father’s collection of zoo animals was capsized in a storm. Imagine the climax of Titanic, only with giraffes, zebras, orangutans, and tigers, and you’ll have some idea of how crazy and astonishing this sequence is. Toward the end of the sequence, there’s a shot of the ship sinking underwater—improbably still lit up like a birthday cake—that simply must be seen to be believed. Were it to be revealed that this shot took up 60% of the film’s budget, it wouldn’t be all that surprising.
The rest of the movie follows Pi and the tiger on the lifeboat. Even though Pi has many opportunities to kill the tiger, he decides to keep it alive because keeping it alive gives his life purpose. Not much happens in terms of plot—Pi builds a raft so that he doesn’t have to share the boat with the tiger, the tiger tries to board the raft, Pi decides to get back onto the lifeboat, etc—but Ang Lee manages to make all this fairly gripping. Not since 127 Hours has a filmmaker done so much with so little.
Interspersed throughout all of this are the sort of tiny poetic moments that make you glad to have eyes. In one shot, Pi—like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner—watches various glow-in-the-dark sea creatures gliding around beneath the surface of the water when all of a sudden a giant whale leaps out in slow motion and soars across the starry night sky. In another shot, a bottle is tossed back and forth in the water, which glows fiery orange in the sunset. In another sequence, a seemingly endless army of kamikaze swordfish collide against the side of the boat. If you thought that the smokestacks of 1930s Paris in Hugo were impressive, wait till you see this.
For some, the film’s emphasis on spirituality may be a bit off-putting. (In a letter to Yann Martel, Barack Obama praised the novel as “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Considering that Obama also seems to have found some merit in the sermonizing of Jeremiah Wright, it shouldn’t be that surprising that he’d reach this conclusion).
Like the novel, the movie seems to argue that belief in God is a good thing, and like the novel, it doesn’t do a terribly persuasive job of it. Still, the second part of Obama’s definitely statement holds true—albeit with one slight modification. Yes, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi offers an elegant proof of the power of storytelling. But more importantly, it also offers an even more elegant proof of Ang Lee’s ability to frame a pretty picture.