Life of Pi (2012)

22 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s amazing how my expectations were only partially met and yet how much I still embrace the film “Life of Pi.” In fact, I sort of wonder what would have happened if the film did go the way I expected it to be. But forget it—I love this movie!

Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is advertised in a way that it’s expected to be a great experience such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”—random actions with excellent visuals and (here’s the expected price) very little words. While it’s certainly talkative for the most part (sort of “showing-and-telling,” if you will), “Life of Pi” is still an unbelievably great achievement in narrative storytelling and masterful special effects. It’s based on a novel (unread by me) by Yann Martel that many readers (and critics) have thought to be “unfilmable.” When you know the premise, you know what I mean. But let’s face it—you’ve seen the advertisements, and the idea on display is enough for you to want to check out the film.

The story involves several months surrounding shipwrecked survivors drifting across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat. Actually, there’s one human survivor—a young Indian man nicknamed “Pi.” He is alone in the vast, empty ocean with only one “companion”—a ferocious Bengal tiger. They find themselves in the same lifeboat and are forced to outwit each other so they’ll survive themselves. How can you not be interested to see how that plays out, especially when you notice the technical achievements, just by watching the trailer? Imagine what the whole film is like.

The story begins with a colorful, well-done prologue showing the childhood of Piscene, who changed his name to “Pi” because his real name sounded too much like “pissing.” He grows up in India, where his family owns a zoo. His favorite, but most terrifying, animal is the tiger—named “Richard Parker.” He feels comfortable around the animals, until his father (Adil Hussain) gives him an unforgettable lesson about the true nature of the beast, forcing Pi to watch as Richard Parker as he makes a meal out of a live goat.

We also see Pi go through a time in which he explores faith and religions, including Christianity and Hinduism. He wants to know God, so he chooses all sorts of religion to try and get to Him. He goes through the next few years, growing to his late teens, with no clear answer. Then, his family announces that they are selling the zoo and moving to Canada. They pack up the animals and take a ship across the Pacific when something goes terribly wrong.

This is all narrated by a much older Pi (Irrfan Khan), telling a reporter (Rafe Spall) his own life story, and he claims that the story that changed his life will make him believe in God. And speaking of that story, the sinking of the ship, which only young Pi (played by sensational newcomer Suraj Sharma) and a few other animals survive, takes place about 45 minutes into the film. This is where the story really begins, and you would think that it would be interrupted by more narrations from the older Pi and scenes that return to the present time. But you’d be wrong. “Life of Pi” lets the next hour (the heart of the film) take over without cheating. We are always there with Pi and “Richard Parker” and wondering what is going to happen to them until they find their way to shore.

This tiger is not a family-friendly tiger. This is an untrained, carnivorous beast, as Pi saw earlier. And thus, when the tiger kills the other animals, Pi has to fight for his life out there in the ocean and only confined to the lifeboat and a small, manmade raft he made from extra parts of the boat. He manages to outwit the animal for so long before he realizes he has to learn to share the same boat with it, leading to scenes in which he attempts to train it.

I don’t want to say too much about it, but trust me when I say that the surprises pile on one after the other. It’s an incredible, ingenious piece of storytelling that just gets better and more intriguing as it goes along.

“Life of Pi” is one of the absolute best films of 2012. I’ve already praised the absorbing story outline and the effective way it’s delivered. Now I want to praise the visuals. And before I do that, I’m going to praise an aspect of film that I never thought I would again—the use of 3-D! I’m not even kidding. This is quite possibly the best use of 3-D since “Avatar” almost three years ago, and it might even be better. The 3-D isn’t merely used for trickery or perceptions. It’s only used to deepen the atmospheric environment all throughout the film, especially in the scenes set in the ocean. There are scenes in which the camera is placed in the sea looking up at the surface of the sea (with the lifeboat and whatnot), and the effects are so seamless that I was mesmerized by how “real” it all seemed. This film takes us to a wonderful place—that is the reason films were made in the first place. This is a gorgeous movie to watch.

“Life of Pi” is as clever a survival story as one can get, but it’s just about faith and spirituality as it is about survival. Much like “Cast Away” and “127 Hours,” “Life of PI” is about one thing that causes the central character to continue the courage to face the next day until survival. “Cast Away” featured the hero’s hope of seeing his loved one again; “127 Hours” featured the hero’s wish to never die alone; and “Life of Pi” features the hero’s search for a sign from God. Pi believes that it is by the will of God that he has survived for months at sea, even with a tiger who could have eaten him much sooner. He takes and accepts every setback that comes his way, even if he comes close to cracking under pressure. He’s a modern-day Job. Everything pays off in the final act, which I will not give away, but it delivers a possibility in the story structure that has you wondering what it is you really believe.

I opened this review by saying that “Life of Pi” had me hooked from its trailer, even if I expected something more. Now that I think about it, a film featuring a man and a tiger alone at sea must have been very tough to market. But I have decided that the final product is majestic and tremendously well-done, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in 2012.

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