Shipwreck survivor Pi Patel has a harrowing story which an interviewer has been told “will make him believe in God”. Ang Lee's bold translation of the Yann Martel bestseller Life of Pi may not quite be able to do that, although it certainly gets you to thinking about such things as religious philosophy. For some, the film could inspire epiphanies about one's own beliefs. For others, not so much. If nothing else, at least it'll make you believe the craftspeople of this high-seas odyssey are gods for creating such divine imagery.
Overall, Life of Pi is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the film is stunning. Claudio Miranda's lush 3D photography – effectively utilized to spatially define the space between Pi and the tiger – in conjunction with the digitized environments account for many a jaw-dropping frame, and Richard Parker is as convincingly realized as any CG character ever put on screen. All that along with the film's Best Picture buzz will make it the likely winner of this year's Best Visual Effects Oscar. Also noteworthy is Lee's stellar sound crew, who work just as hard to deliver a sense of space as the visuals do, but with more subtlety.
On a conceptual level, Life of Pi is a fascinating exploration of faith and the ever-changing presence of God. We may question what sort of God would put someone through the suffering experienced by young Pi, but as he himself comes to believe, it may have been God who put that tiger on his lifeboat, thus forcing him to exercise the resourcefulness that ultimately kept him alive. He does work in mysterious ways, so they say.
On the other hand, as wonderful and imaginative as the story may be, the way it's framed in David Magee's adaptation is both oddly employed and needlessly expository. The constant returns to older Pi recounting his saga to an attentive writer not only pulls us out of the central plot, but it also results in the blatant spelling out of the film's thematic threads, which can hardly be qualified as subtext once they've been so bluntly explained. This isn't as much a problem during the lengthy second act which wisely and compellingly focuses on Pi's lifeboat adventures, but it makes for a weirdly paced pair of bookends which range from mildly amusing to borderline excruciating (one long hospital bed sequence comes to mind).
Life of Pi is worth the cost of an inflated 3D ticket to see on a big screen, for it is undeniably marvelous to behold. Regrettably, it may lack the narrative finesse needed to yield the powerful emotional impact it's going for – although that will, of course, depend on the viewer.
**1/2 out of ****