*Life of Pi (PG)
There are movies that come along where it almost makes no logical sense that they were ever made — and Life of Pi is one of them. Start with a novel by Yann Martel which, while a critical success, is hardly a household name. Make it a mix of gritty survival drama and otherworldly visuals, as though somebody dipped Cast Away into a vat of Avatar. Give it to a filmmaker whose most notable journey into big-budget fantasy, Hulk, hardly endeared him to those looking to make wads of money. Oh, and did I mention there will not be a single actor in the cast recognizable to more than a handful of Americans? Or that its star will be Indian? Or that its religious/philosophical sensibility brushes aside mainstream notions of faith in favor of something decidedly Unitarian-Universalist?
Yep: Time to start doing the blockbuster touchdown dance, all right.
No, it certainly shouldn't exist, yet director Ang Lee has concocted something fairly remarkable, at least in the images it offers. He and screenwriter David Magee stick close to the source, opening with a framing narrative in which a struggling Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) listens to the strange story of a man named Pi (Irrfan Khan). Flashbacks take us to Pi's youth in Pondicherry, India, growing up the son of a zookeeper and puzzling his family with his devotion not just to Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When the family decides to relocate to North America, along with their entire menagerie, they take a cargo ship, which sinks during a raging Pacific storm. The rest of the human passengers and his entire family lost, the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is left on a lifeboat with a few surviving zoo animals, adding a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker to the list of threats to Pi's survival, including starvation and thirst.
From the early scenes of Pi's life in India through his ordeal at sea, Lee serves up some of the most breathtaking compositions you'll see at the movies this year. A shot from beneath a swimmer in a clear pool conveys the sense that he's swimming through the sky; beneath the ocean, Pi watches in silence as the haunting silhouette of the sinking ship slips to the ocean floor. Pi's nighttime contemplation turns into a swirling mass of creatures and images coalescing into a vision of the universe itself. Even the use of 3-D becomes uniquely intriguing, as Lee changes the aspect ratio of one shot so that it feels as though a soaring fish is literally bursting through the frame of the film. A luminescent island populated by thousands of CGI meerkats may feel like it's pushing the story into the realm of the absurd, but it's all still remarkable to behold.
And despite the fact that young Sharma is playing the majority of the film opposite a computer-generated tiger, the survival story proves fundamentally compelling as well. Lee understands that his story is not intended to be harrowing in its psychological realism, nor does Sharma have to play pure existential terror at his plight. He focuses on the interaction between Pi and Richard Parker as metaphor for a frightening natural world that has to be understood, not merely tamed into submission. That he manages to do so in a way that's still often funny and thrilling seems like gravy.
More challenging for audiences might be the way Life of Pi turns its title character's journey into an exploration of the nature of faith, and the importance of what faith gives to us in lessons and stories. The answers Martel came up with may prove vexing, and indeed the limited time the first half-hour of the film spends on Pi's multi-faceted youthful experiments in religion makes it harder for the framing sequences to sell its conclusions on the complex nature of God. But, Life of Pi does manage to sell the notion of embracing that which is beautiful. That's the level on which Ang Lee makes it work, creating a story about the ideas in our existence that happily defy reason, in a movie that itself exists in defiance of reason.