Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which won Britain’s prestigious Mann Booker Prize in 2002, along with a slew of other honors, seems to be one of those love-it-or-hate-it books. I say “seems” because I haven’t yet read it myself; but I’ve talked to a number of people who did, and who just didn’t get what all the critical praise was about. Maybe the problem, for some, is that it’s a story that self-consciously sets out to get you to believe in God. Or maybe it’s the implausibility of the narrative premise – a teenager staying alive in a lifeboat adrift at sea with a Bengal tiger for 227 days – or the ambiguity of the boy-or-the-tiger ending.
Whatever your objection, if you didn’t much care for Life of Pi the novel, or if you missed it altogether, take heart: Ang Lee’s cinematic version is entirely worth seeing. In fact, I’m putting it down on my short list of don’t-miss movies for 2012.
The reason doesn’t take much explaining: splendid spectacle, pure and simple. No other movie that I’ve seen this year – not even Cloud Atlas – comes anywhere near Life of Pi in terms of sheer visual impact. Scene after scene, it’s just breathtaking to look at, and the best reason since Avatar and Hugo to be pleased with the fact that 3-D filmmaking technology has been revived and nearly perfected.
The opening sequence – of animals serenely ambling along in a small zoo in Pondicherry, India, belonging to the protagonist’s family – is lovely enough to be worth the price of admission by itself. But the real glory of Life of Pi hits the screen along with the galloping typhoon waves that sink the freighter on which Pi Patel’s family and menagerie are emigrating to Canada. The wreck scenes are positively terrifying, and also give newcomer Suraj Sharma an opportunity to demonstrate his considerable talents as a physical actor, careening about the decks of the ship as if they truly were lurching every which way underneath him.
And then, over Pi and Richard Parker the tiger’s months at sea in their lifeboat and tethered homemade raft, we witness scene after scene of heartbreaking natural beauty: seascapes, sunsets and cloud castles. A humpback whale breaches right next to the flimsy little craft. A school of thousands of flying fish arcs overhead, some of them saving its passengers from starvation by thoughtfully flopping into the boat. A hallucinatory floating island teems with inquisitive meerkats, emerald-green jungle and crystal pools. Most stunning of all is a night of dead calm when the castaways are mere floating silhouettes sandwiched between a sky full of brilliant stars and a sea aglow with bioluminescent plankton and jellyfish.
Is it enough for a movie just to be staggeringly gorgeous to the eye, even behind 3-D goggles? Not for all, surely. Life of Pi does tell an intriguing if improbable tale. Fans of the perennially popular survival-saga genre will find enough to keep them happy here, as Pi discovers how to use the practical gear packed away under the gunwales of the lifeboat, and later determines to teach Richard Parker who’s boss.
The philosophical baggage of the novel is rendered with a fairly light touch. Having been raised by a mother (Tabu) who is a practicing Hindu only for reasons of preserving her family’s cultural heritage, and a father (Adil Hussain) who believes only in science, Pi is a religious omnivore, embracing Christianity and Islam along with Hinduism. The various literally existential crises that confront him during his long ordeal at sea spark a series of entreaties to any and all deities; and the ways in which his prayers get answered are certainly integral to the story. But you don’t necessarily have to buy the whole package in order to appreciate the narrator’s point of view.
The adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his story in retrospect to an aspiring writer (Rafe Spall) who wants to get it all down. Only at the very end do we get an inkling that it may be, in some respects, a shaggy tiger tale. And perhaps the question that lingers longest with the viewer is not so much whether there really is some god who intervenes in our lives when we need him/her/it most. Maybe Life of Pi is really more about whether the essence of truth lies not in literal veracity, but in the kind of storytelling that resonates deep within the heart of the hearer.