Over four years in the making and painstakingly crafted by a team of three thousand creatives, the grandeur and scale of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) – his adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel – isn’t simply limited to its production history. With a healthy claim to being the most expensive arthouse film of all time (don’t be fooled by the Fox logo above the door), Lee has successfully married some of this year’s most sumptuous visuals with one of its most compelling and unashamedly spiritual stories; the titular Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) battling with the Almighty as he floats across the vast Pacific Ocean.
Structured (as with Martel’s original text) as a series of vivid flashbacks, a middle-aged Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts the pivotal event of his sensational life to an avid novelist (Rafe Spall). Beginning with his childhood in Pondicherry, French India, Pi spends his formative years roving around his father’s zoo, fending off bullies at school and devoting himself to a pious life through an holy hat-trick of Hindu, Christian and Muslim worship. When his father decides to sell the menagerie and start a new life with his family in Canada, Pi is ushered onto a doomed Japanese freighter, which consequently sinks during a storm. Cast out into the ocean with only a tiger, a zebra, a hyena and an orangutan for company, the boy’s previously unwavering beliefs are tested to their limits.
Since the release of James Cameron’s self-proclaimed 3D ‘game-changer’ Avatar back in 2009, Hollywood has been frantically searching for the next champion of the divisive format. Whilst Lee’s near-elemental force of direction may be largely responsible for some of Life of Pi’s most magnificent moments (several tempestuous storm sequences cling tightly to the memory), all three dimensions are put to exceptional use throughout. Add to this some of the finest creature effects seen to date – it can be difficult to decipher where animal ends and artificial construct begins at points, such is the level of artistry on display – and Pi has announced itself as one of the early technical marvels of the 21st century.
Thankfully – and in a stark departure from Cameron’s aforementioned big blue alien hunt – Lee’s parable of supreme endurance and divine passage has the narrative chops to match its jaw-dropping aesthetics, crucially using the latter to propel and augment the former. Eclipsing even Benh Zeitlin’s acclaimed debut Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) in terms of vitality and life-affirming conviction, Life of Pi flits effortlessly through time and space at the behest of Khan’s charismatic narrator. Doing for the shimmering deep what Terrence Malick did for prehistoric volcanic expanses in The Tree of Life (2011), Lee weaves an intricate, but not incomprehensible net of religious iconography and Darwinian theorem, emerging at one simple truth – life on Earth will do everything in its power to survive, against all odds.
A striking tonal shift in Pi’s final quarter may catch some off-guard, and Spall’s reactionary listener may contribute almost nothing outside of serving as a receptacle for Pi’s fantastical exploits, but neither foible should take anything away from what is an outstanding adaptation of a rich text many thought unfilmable. If Lee’s 2005 multiple Oscar winner Brokeback Mountain was a tale of two men’s love for one another, his Life of Pi is the story of one boy’s unwavering adoration for his God. Regardless of your own personal spiritual leanings (or lack thereof), this is one slice of Pi that should leave you well and truly fulfilled – mind, body and soul.