“Life of Pi” is based on a beloved, bestselling novel, so the process of adapting it for the screen clearly came with a great deal of pressure to satisfy the existing fan-base by following the text to a tee. But most viewers who have no attachment to Yan Martel’s 2001 book will wish that director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee had taken Martel’s basic idea and stripped it of all its pseudo-philosophical accoutrements. The center 90-minute stretch of “Life of Pi” is a rousing, technically immaculate survival-at-sea film unto its own, but the old-fashioned joys of this experience are diluted by talky bookends that exist only to add a thin spiritual subtext.
Granted, I’m a resolute agnostic, so I’m not the best judge of whether the film’s God-based appeals speak effectively to those of faith. But as an outsider looking in, these struck me as far too nondenominational to offer anything of substance. In the opening section of “Life of Pi,” the titular protagonist (played as an older man by Irrfan Khan) reflects on his childhood decision to become a practicing Hindu, Christian, and Muslim (simultaneously, not in succession). This instills a generically faith-based undercurrent in the struggle that dominates the film: a teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is shipwrecked in the South Pacific, cohabiting a life-boat with a vicious Bengal tiger that would love to eat him. In voiceover from older Pi throughout the film and in the concluding segment, God’s role in Pi’s epic journey and miraculous survival is explicitly contemplated. But “Life of Pi” speaks to the influence of a creator in such universalized ways that it ultimately just congratulates the viewer for whatever they believe, saying little of its own.
The long stretch in which Pi is stranded in the open ocean, however, is so aesthetically accomplished and viscerally affecting that it triumphs over the spiritual babble surrounding it. First off, “Life of Pi” boasts the best use of 3-D ever, making the experience feel more real than it would in traditional 2-D, thereby keeping the risk of Pi’s mortality on the forefront of the viewer’s mind. From the initial shipwreck through Pi’s many weeks at sea, the weight and pull of the ocean and the imposing presence of the tiger could not be better illustrated than they are through the added spacial realization afforded by stereoscopy. And speaking of the tiger: what a marvel of computer animation. If it weren’t for the fact that training a real animal to do the things that Richard Parker, as Pi calls him, does in the movie would be impossible, you’d think this was an actual living being, not a product of 1s and 0s. The same goes for the other animals in the film, from the zebra, orangutan, and hyena that Richard Parker hunts on the life-boat (Pi’s father was transporting his zoo from India to Canada) to the enormous colony of meerkats that Pi and Richard Parker discover on a desert island.
And yet, for all its visual achievements, “Life of Pi” wouldn’t be the film it is without the performance of first-time screen actor Suraj Sharma. While the animators are responsible for many of the nuances of Richard Parker’s behavior, the tiger’s relationship with Pi is mostly a product of Sharma’s acting. The dynamic between the two is multi-faceted: Richard Parker continually threatens Pi’s survival with his predatory drive, but at the same time, he is the only other “person” Pi has to live for (his family dies in the shipwreck). This requires Sharma to convey a great amount of inner-conflict through his face and eyes alone, a difficult task that he pulls off with flying colors. Two elements of the performance are especially impressive: 1) Sharma never allows this subtle, internal drama to be upstaged by Pi’s more theatrical outbursts of frustration regarding his plight and 2) Sharma’s delicate interplay with Richard Parker was acted entirely toward a tennis ball.
“Life of Pi” is yet another example of director Ang Lee’s ability to skillfully tackle nearly any type of film he chooses. Consider the diversity of his work in the New Millennium alone: a martial arts epic, a Marvel comic-book adaptation, a gay romance, a sex-filled espionage thriller set during the Japanese occupation of China, a Woodstock comedy, and now this. While imperfect on the whole due to the miscalculated spiritual elements that open and close the film, “Life of Pi” will nonetheless go down as one of the quintessential survival sagas in film history.