For Life of Pi, the overcontrolled director Ang Lee has gone with his strengths and made a movie that’s passionately overcontrolled. It takes place largely on a lifeboat adrift in the South Pacific that carries radically mismatched buddies: a skinny 16-year-old Indian vegetarian with the odd name “Pi” (Suraj Sharma) and a man-eating Bengal tiger with the even odder name “Richard Parker.” The lifeboat isn’t entirely lifelike, mind you. The water’s aquamarine is more like ultra-ultramarine, the sea a mirror in which clouds above seem to mingle with sharks, dorados, luminous jellyfish, even whales below. Later, on an island that’s mysteriously alive, the orange of the tiger burns especially bright in the chlorophyll-green forest of the ebony-black night. Life of Pi looks neither natural nor egregiously fake but vivid, as if a knob had been turned way up on the color of each object’s spirit and the real world into a sort of pantheistic storybook. And that’s exactly the right look for what it is: a tale told by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a writer (Rafe Spall) who has sought him out after hearing that Pi had a story to make him “believe in God.” I’m not sure how I felt about God at the end of Life of Pi, but I fervently believed in the magic of movies.
Some of that magic comes from the 3-D, which Lee shows off in the first seconds of the credit sequence. In an Indian zoo owned by Pi’s parents, the camera lingers on paintings of animals on walls that bear a striking resemblance to cave paintings—and then look out, the animals’ 3-D counterparts are suddenly comin’ at ya. Those cave painters would freak out. But there’s also something old-fashioned about Lee’s frames. He holds the shots for a long time, longer than any major American studio head would let him if not for that marvelously immersive technology. Armed with 3-D, Lee can slow the storytelling down without worrying about modern audiences getting antsy. And he has Mychael Danna’s score, one of Danna’s East-West hybrids (Persian flutes and gamelan weaving in and out of Romantic orchestrations), providing a sense of flux when the images are static. That lifeboat goes nowhere fast.
Pi’s god (God, gods) is (are) also in flux: He’s a polymath, a Hindu who thanks Lord Vishnu for introducing him to Christ while rolling out his prayer mat to honor Allah. This kid subscribes to everything—and this in the face of his father’s blunt reliance on reason and insistence that creatures like the tiger (which gazes into Pi’s eyes and sees only lunch) have no souls. Pi’s own faith in the Higher Power(s) gets the test of his or anyone’s life when the ship bound for North America bearing his family and their animals (they’re emigrating) goes down along with most of the living things onboard. The audience, meanwhile, witnesses the uplifting arrival of the god of cinema.
In one fluid motion, a zebra (it must be CGI, but who can tell?) leaps crazily into the lifeboat and lands with a terrible, backbreaking thud. There’s an orangutan grieving for a lost child, and hiding under a tarpaulin is the piece’s real villain, a madly carnivorous hyena. Richard Parker swims aboard and carnage ensues—though far less explicit than the corresponding passages of Yann Martel’s novel. Left alone with each other and their dwindling supplies of food, Pi and Parker achieve a tense détente, though let it be said that Lee, like Martel, goes all out to avoid even a whiff of family-friendly anthropomorphosizing. Despite that name, Richard Parker remains an animal in circumstances known to turn the most civilized human into a beast. Dread forestalls dearness. Life of Pi evokes Melville’s mordant answer to the Transcendentalists in Moby-Dick: You might sit astride a mast and feel a oneness with nature, but fall into the sea and you’ll be quickly digested. Even those clunky interludes with the grown-up Pi and the interviewer (poor Spall, with so little to play) end up paying off. The movie has a sting in its tail that puts what you’ve seen in a startlingly harsh context.
It turns out Lee has more affinity for Pi the yarn-spinner than for any of his other heroes. His movies (Lust, Caution; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk; Brokeback Mountain; Taking Woodstock) center on emotions that can’t be suppressed and finally burst forth—but the meticulousness of his framing and color-coordination (or that mythical cowboy iconography in Brokeback Mountain) make his work seem one step removed, as if in a terrarium. In Life of Pi, he finally has a story in which that very distance is the source of the emotion. Pi has designed his own terrarium to keep from staring directly into the abyss. It’s not denial. It’s faith in something else: the transformative power of storytelling. The film is transcendent.