While this year films like “Cloud Atlas” sought to reinvent narrative structure, adding complex story arcs that span centuries, a film like “The Life of Pi” shows that there is plenty of life in simplicity. The castaway/shipwreck-style story has been told nearly as long as humans have crossed the seas. And yet “The Life of Pi” is energizing and captivating, beautiful and mesmerizing, despite being so familiar. It is very easily the best film I’ve seen this year and a genuine joy to watch.
The story is easy enough. A young Indian boy raised in a zoo is travelling with his family to North America, where his father intends to sell the animals and start life over. As the ship crosses the Marianas Trench in the Pacific, a storm sinks the vessel. The last Pi sees of his former life are lights disappearing into the darkness of the sea. Pi manages to escape in a lifeboat, but when the storm passes, he finds that he isn’t alone. He is sharing the boat with a dangerous and wild Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The story is told by a narrator, Pi himself, to an author looking for a story in present day. It is memory and exists as an imaginative version of the truth, one of wonder and survival, of adaptation and faith, of humanity and its place in the natural world. It is at once believable and impossible. Only Pi witnessed the events, so we as an audience are forced to trust him implicitly.
The story seeks to prove the existence of God, as Pi is simultaneously a Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Much like the story of Job, Pi is faced with tremendous trials, but does not curse his creator. Rather he accepts his outcomes, fighting and enduring, keeping meticulous notes in his journal only to have it ripped away by a storm that represents the wildness and imperceptibility of the Divine. Pi cannot question his fate, only praise the experience.
If the story is simple, the visual effect of the film is complex. I very rarely see a film in 3D, as I find it deteriorates the quality of the medium. Due to extenuating circumstances, I saw “The Life of Pi” in 3D and the experience was surprising and wonderful. This is the first 3D film I’ve seen that enhanced the overall experience rather than distracted from it. It is the best use of the technology since Avatar. Unlike most 3D films, the colors are bright and clear, with no fuzzy lines or blurred action. The audience is actually pulled into the film by the effects—the scene with the flying fish was especially captivating, as was the wonder of the night reflected in the still water of the ocean. I can’t remember a recent film that is so visually enthralling. This is a breathtaking experience that must be in seen the darkness of a theater. Even the best home theater in the world cannot replicate the majesty of the visuals of this film seen on the big screen. I can only imagine that this film had the same effect on me as “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Star Wars” must have had on its original audience. Everything on the screen has a distinct presence, seeming to occupy the same space at the same time.
I cannot recommend this film enough. Not only is it visually spectacular, but the story examines the spiritual side of humanity that even the hardest of hearts can identify with. It is a story of triumph and tragedy. If this is the type of film Hollywood is capable of producing (through the masterful eye of director Ang Lee) then we should all be encouraged about the state of film. Reward Hollywood for this one. The more people see films of this type, the more likely we’ll have films like this in the future. “The Life of Pi” is the best movie out right now—it will likely be the best film released this year.