Life of Pi is the kind of film that people are either going to lose themselves in, or want to get out of. Its mesmerising digital effects will polarize audiences. Some will applaud its aesthetics only to denounce it as narratively weak and fatuous, whereas others will find themselves highly affected by it, and not just because of the dazzling CGI.
At its core this is a film about allegory and the power of storytelling. Piscine Molitor Patel (or Pi for short) is an Indian immigrant living in Canada. Approached by a novelist looking for ideas for a book, Pi begins to relate some memories from when he was a youngster. His story goes that he lived with his father, mother and brother at a zoo in Pondicherry. As a young boy, Pi flits between various faiths including Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam, before deciding to follow all three. Eventually his father decides that the family should move to Canada, and plans to have them and the animals of the zoo transported there on a Japanese freighter. I’m not really spoiling anything by giving away that the ship sinks, considering that the poster shows a boy stranded at sea in a lifeboat. After losing his family and most of the animals, Pi finds himself in the company of a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What ensues is a fight for survival, as well as a heavy dose of magical realism as we encounter luminous sea creatures and mysterious islands.
Visually, this is one of the most astounding and gorgeous pieces of cinema that I have ever laid my eyes on. The colour palette is beyond hyper-real. Its blues and yellows are gem-like, and its skies and seas transform from velvety to stony with effortless ease. All that Pi and Richard Parker encounter has an illusory quality to it which makes every obstacle seem as though it could just as easily be a mirage as it could be a genuine threat. At one point Pi says something along the lines of: “I can’t tell my dreams from reality any more”. Similarly, as a viewer, it’s hard to define the materiality of anything on screen. It all seems as though it might slip through the fingers like sand at any moment, or blow away in the wind. And yet this is the beauty of the story; it is at once real and imagined. Everything can be either taken at face value, or can stand for some harsher truth.
That’s not to say that the CGI isn’t believable. The Bengal tiger is a great achievement, and not for one moment was I reminded of its computer generated origin. Every hair of it body is tangible and its eyes are hypnotic and full of depth and life. Suraj Sharma does well to react to what is essentially empty air as he conveys fear and love for his companion, and the two make an incredible pair. It is through the exploration of Pi’s relationship with this animal and its motives and behaviour that the film gains its emotional power. Ironically, it is its most impressive visual effect that serves as its most moving subject. The moment where the tiger leaves and journeys into the forest is extremely emotive. Embodying various conflicting view-points, this wild cat is a symbol of so many ideas and feelings. Is it a metaphor, or is it real? Does it feel compassion, or is it dispassionate? Essentially, Richard Parker is a space for doubt as well as faith, which are two things that Pi himself revels in as he studies the religions of the world. Can we ever know anything for sure, and do we really want to?
Life of Pi proves the enthralling and sometimes dangerous influence of a good story. Imaginative in every aspect, it succeeds in translating magical realism to the screen without ever appearing crass or insensitive. Brilliantly acted and brilliantly filmed, it is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind.
FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★1/2