Is there anything Ang Lee can’t do? Judging by Life of Pi, probably not. He’s already delivered a kung fu movie with deeper relationships than any romantic drama; a groundbreaking paen to gay rights; the hottest soft-core Japanese occupation flick you’ll ever see; and fascinating adaptations of both Jane Austen and Stan Lee. Now he sets his sights on Yann Martel’s surreal survival novel: a project that demands both the visual innovation and the storytelling strengths that only a filmmaker of his caliber can deploy.
Life of Pi also fits into the one theme that all his films embrace: the struggle to communicate. In this case, our protagonist Pi (Suraj Sharma) seeks a connection with the forces of the universe during a harrowing fight for survival. The answers don’t always come, at least not in the form he expects, but we do feel the passion of his search… an emotion that Lee hasn’t always conveyed as well as he should.
The fulcrum for it all is a shipwreck that drowns Pi’s family and most of the zoo animals they were transporting from India to Canada. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with four other critters… who soon fall to attrition until only a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is left. (The tiger’s name comes from a clerical error.) That presents a small problem for a young man without hope of rescue. His desperation turns to ingenuity, and somehow, some way, he learns to coexist with a man-eater on this tiny bobbing cork.
Lee spells out the path to survival in logical terms: he never cheats with random acts of fortune, nor does he downplay the tiger’s savagery to give the protagonist an easier time. Life of Pi earns every step of the process, thanks in part both to Sharma’s performance and the CG artists who bring Richard Parker to life. The tiger flashes shades of artifice from time to time but – like Andy Serkis’s various creations – we never stop believing in him as a character. He lives and breathes on the screen, a trait that speaks less to the (considerable) skill of the effects artist, and more to Lee’s superb direction. The director endears us to the character through the story instead of relying on his visual effects to carry the day.
That’s vital for the film’s second half. With survival more or less secure, but rescue far from certain, Pi lays himself against the canvas of the cosmos. Richard Parker becomes a window to the inscrutable forces that brought them both to this place; through the tiger, Pi begins a halting meditation with their power and purpose. Again, Lee makes the ideal choice for that, rendering a hallucinogenic inner journey in a kaleidoscope of breathtaking images. As Pi himself writes, he can no longer tell where reality ends and dreams begin. We move with him through an increasingly surreal landscape, unsure if he’s moving towards rescue or oblivion. It may not matter; the journey defines him rather than the ultimate destination.
Richard Parker is a part of that, and there comes a point when Pi won’t get rid of him even if he could. His link to the beast keeps him human in some strange way, as well as opening him up to forces he couldn’t hope to understand otherwise. Lee invests their relationship with deep-rooted emotions: desperation, eagerness, even camaraderie at times. Pi can never be sure if Richard Parker shares his feelings or merely reflects them, but he needs to connect with whatever lies behind it.
That yearning translates into a devotion to character that we haven’t seen much of in Lee’s works. He’s often rather clinical in his approach to people, and his focus on the unspoken sometimes leaves us a little cold. Not so here. He fully engages the source material – intellectually, emotionally and visually – and cracks the code for how to bring Martel’s words to the screen in a fruitful manner. Pi finds peace out there on the ocean, but he doesn’t necessarily find clarity. It’s up to the audience to decide for themselves not only what he discovered but what those discoveries mean. Anything, everything… it’s all in the eye of the beholder. It may ultimately be a mirror for us – a gorgeous, baffling, complex and deeply compelling mirror – or it might be something more. The film doesn’t tell us how to interpret what we see, but rather lets us decide on our own terms. That may, in the end, be the most magical thing about an already magical picture. Life of Pi is sublime filmmaking from an artist at the top of his game; everything else follows as a matter of course.