The much anticipated Life of Pi, the new film from Ang Lee, based on Yann Martel's 2001 Man Booker Prize-winning bestseller, opened the 50th New York Film Festival this past Friday. Long considered impossible to film - even though, as Martel indicated at Friday morning's press conference, he often thought in cinematic terms while writing the novel - Lee has achieved this goal by shooting in 3D, with often stunning results.
Life of Pi's impressiveness in visual terms is pretty much undeniable, with major kudos due to cinematographer Claudio Miranda. Much of the film is set on a lifeboat where the main character is stranded with zoo animals, and the action here is rendered with an eye-popping vividness. The raging, violent seas, as well as luminous nighttime shots of marine life, also make a great case for the efficacy of 3D technology for creating such visual wonders. Some of the imagery here rivals that of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an earlier Ang Lee work that offered stunningly fantastical visions. What a pity, then, that much of this near-visionary material is shackled to a ham-handed screenplay - by David Magee - with a rickety construction and an unfortunate tendency to telegraph its religious and philosophical themes with unsubtle and simplistic bullet points. These major flaws prevent Life of Pi from being the classic work it had the potential to be.
Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, "known to all as Pi," who as an adult - impressively played by veteran actor Irrfan Khan - in the safe confines of his Montreal home, relates to a writer (Rafe Spall) the almost unbelievable tale of his 227 days adrift at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger. These present scenes are used as a frame device for the rest of the film, which looks back to his childhood and the events that led to his being cast out to sea. As a child, Pi grew up around a large animal menagerie, since his father (Adil Hussain) ran a zoo in Pondicherry, a former French colony of India. It is there that Pi first encounters the fearsome Bengal tiger known as "Richard Parker." This tiger is the object of a harsh lesson his father gives him to demonstrate the ferociousness of this creature; "The tiger is not your friend!" Pi's father thunders.
Pi is also ecumenically curious about different religions, practicing Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam with equal enthusiasm, although his atheistic father warns Pi that believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing. The quest for religious meaning is a major theme of both the film and the novel, although the film version is rather less successful in letting these themes emerge naturally, instead of constantly stating and restating them verbally through the mouths of the characters.
Political changes and economic hardship force Pi's father to shut down the zoo, sell his animals, and begin an emigration to Canada. The now 17-year-old Pi - played in a remarkable turn by newcomer Suraj Sharma - is very much against the move, loving his home and having started a romance with a schoolmate; however, he has no choice but to go along with his family. They, along with the animals that couldn't be sold, board a Japanese cargo ship, where Pi's father has a hostile encounter with a surly French cook (Gerard Depardieu, in an amusing cameo).
The tragic events that set Pi's oceanic and spiritual journey into motion occur one night during a massive storm in which Pi's family perishes, leaving him the sole survivor on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a hyena, and a zebra. Unbeknownst to Pi at first, the Bengal tiger Richard Parker has come along for the ride. After Richard Parker's predatory instincts leave Pi and Richard Parker the only living beings on board, a battle of wills between the two ensues, and they must find a way to coexist and survive their arduous ordeal.
This section, which makes up the bulk of the film, is where Life of Pi's cinematic gifts come fully to the fore. The CGI animals are rendered with impressively realistic vividness, and the gargantuan rainstorms (created in a massive self-generating wave tank in Taichung, Taiwan), as well as scenes of luminous jellyfish, an enormous whale, and an encounter with a swarm of flying fish, make their own best arguments for how 3D can be uniquely equipped to fully realize such imagery. Unfortunately the bewitching, fairy-tale like spell these passages evoke (with shades of Rudyard Kipling) is too often broken by flash-forwards to the present as the adult Pi tells his story. As fine an actor as Irrfan Khan is in these scenes, they detract from the magical qualities of the film, and they ill-advisedly attempt to browbeat the audience into being spiritually moved by these events. Allowing the imagery itself to do the work would have been a much more effective strategy. This is not to say that the scenes at sea don't sometimes fall into man-in-peril and quasi-mystical clichés: at one point Pi says to God, "I am your vessel"; at another, he rails at the heavens, "I've lost my family, I've lost everything! I surrender! What more do you want?" These, again, are unfortunate instances where Life of Pi tells us about, rather than shows us, the workings of faith and doubt.
However, despite its structural and thematic weaknesses, Life of Pi is still worth seeing, if only because the film more than justifies the extra dollars you'll have to spend for 3D. Ang Lee conceived of this as a 3D film, he says, even before Avatar proved this to be a viable option. The fine performances by its cast, as well as Ang Lee's usual, and wonderful, sense of humanism and sympathy for people fighting against adversity, helps the film transcend its (if you'll excuse the nautical analogy) waterlogged script. Life of Pi won't make you believe in God, as Pi claims his story will, but it will make you believe in cinema's singular ability to take you to places you've never seen before.
It is important to note that the New York Film Festival screenings were not of the final edit; Ang Lee said at Friday's press conference that some "final tweaking" was still being done. Life of Pi opens in theaters November 21.