Ang Lee makes movies I want to see. From the near-perfect Ice Storm to the astonishingly unsung Hulk, Ang Lee always produces work that is interesting, innovative, beautiful, and thought-provoking. Life of Pi is, of course, all of these things, but does it bring anything new to Lee’s staggering filmography?
Life of Pi is a tale of survival, not only of the elements, but of the questions that plague us all. Pi is a desperate thinker, clinging to every religion and idea that offers hope of an afterlife, and secretly doubting that anything so magical could be true in a world full of horrifying reality. Pi is all of us, neither East nor West. It’s no mistake that he’s from French-occupied India, where both sides of the world are so intermingled that it’s impossible to tell which world it belongs to. It’s no mistake that he chose his own name, which is itself mathematical and universal. It’s also no mistake that Pi is lost at sea in the Pacific, where West and East violently collide.
It’s here that Pi loses his family, his religion, his security, and his innocence. Somewhere between East and West, Pi finds himself.
The story follows Pi Patel as he tries to survive the devastating aftermath of a shipwreck in the middle of the ocean, where he and a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker are the only survivors. For weeks, maybe months, Pi and Richard Parker spend their days finding food, fighting the elements, and becoming family. All set to some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen.
Pi’s journey is also that of art itself. The opening credits play over ancient paintings on the side of Indian buildings. Paintings of Hindu gods that are two-dimensional and simple, but also elegant in their simplicity.
As the film continues, the visual style becomes more dynamic. The 3-D photography becomes more engrossing. The editing grows more stylistic and sophisticated. The camera begins to move around and become a character of its own.
In short, Life of Pi is a film history lesson wrapped around a religious history lesson wrapped around a survival lesson. There’s so much to learn and comprehend within the movie that it’s ultimately exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful, fantastic movie, but it’s also just too much to take in. It demands multiple viewings and multiple points of view. It’s an enigma; a puzzle; a bold challenge to those who need answers and understanding.
Perhaps obviously, I found the film history lesson to be the most fascinating element of the movie. Ang Lee’s visuals are nothing short of miraculous. I actually found myself, out loud, wondering how they accomplished several scenes. I know that the answer is computers, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more convincing computer animation. No tigers were used in the movie. It’s all computer animation. Try to believe that claim as you watch the movie.
There are tracking shots that perform impossible feats. I know the answer is computers, but try to believe that when the camera follows Pi through a sinking ship filled with exotic animals. How about this, try to care. Try to care that it’s computers when you see the ocean acting as a perfect mirror to the sky, placing Pi and Richard Parker somewhere in the heavens and away from the nightmare of isolation. The visual ambition of this movie is staggering, and it just solidifies what I already know. That Ang Lee is one of the great visualists of our time. Of all time.
And that’s enough to give you faith in something. The power of storytelling.