In Ang Lee's exhilarating Life of Pi—based upon the bestselling novel by Yann Martel—a boy adrift reads a "Survival at Sea" manual. "Telling stories is highly recommended," it says. "Above all, do not lose hope." The same might be said of a life lived existentially "at sea." Martel's fable of faith serves as a Rorschach test of belief, one that the faithful can enthusiastically embrace but one that also leaves itself open to a purely rationalist interpretation. In the hands of Ang Lee, a true film artist, Life of Pi elegantly walks Martel's philosophical line while also brilliantly using every modern cinematic tool to spin an epic yarn.
Most prominent among these tools is 3D. Lee joins the ranks of auteurs reinvigorated in their craft by the playful promise of the new 3D cameras, and he gainfully employs the 3D for its full ViewMaster "pop" effect, but also in more magical ways. Lee's typically innovative visual approach here extends, in one sequence, to tricking the eye with flying fish that leap out of the frame vertically at the same time as they appear to approach the eye with 3D depth.
Life of Pi also qualifies as a tour de force for its newly minted star, seventeen-year-old discovery Suraj Sharma. Sharma plays the teenage Piscine Molitor (a.k.a. "Pi"), who, having been raised in South India, winds up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, warily sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger. A framing device establishes the adult Pi (the great Irrfan Khan) telling his remarkable story to a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall), understood to be a Martel surrogate, who has come to hear "a story that would make [him] believe in God."
As a boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) becomes something of a "Catholic Hindu," who sees the gods of various religions as his "superheroes." His zookeeper father sternly cautions, "Believing in everything at the same time is the same as not believing anything at all." Pi's spiritual picaresque shifts into a high gear once he's fighting for survival on that "life"boat. Pushed to the limits of endurance, Pi stands at an intersection of madness and reality, a liminal space that finds him susceptible to desire for "salvation" but also possibly open to unique insight.
Pi's attempts to reach détente with the tiger (dubbed "Richard Parker") create a fearful intimacy analogous to some people's experience of God. "I have to believe there was more in his eyes than my own reflection staring back at me," Pi says, but the film's visual motifs of mirrored surfaces (including astonishing imagery of sea reflecting sky) might just as well suggest that people under sufficient emotional duress see what they want to see.
Life of Pi succeeds as a grand adventure, but also as a provocation, about what we need to believe and, given what we do accept—even in science—what we may as well believe in order to adapt to our own everyday absurd circumstance of finite existence. As Spall's character says, "It is a lot to take in," but that's a good thing where moviegoers are concerned.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]
Fox gives Blu-ray collectors options when it comes to Life of Pi, for which Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar. There's a 3D combo pack with exclusive deleted scenes and a few other exclusive bonuses, and there's a solo DVD, VOD, or a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack. That last one is what I was provided for review, so let's take a look at what it has to offer.
The hi-def digital-to-digital transfer looks pretty spectacular, with any tiny deficiencies basically inherited from the source. The image has snap, with bright, bold color and exceptional detail and texture lending themselves to an image with dimensionality and a magnetic pull. As discussed in my interview with Lee (see sidebar), the film twice briefly changes aspect ratio, a choice properly preserved here.
Audiophiles could hardly ask for more than the included lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix here. This is a mix that's not the subtlest you'll see for a drama, which makes it a bounty for those who like to be approached from all sides with sounds, many of them incredibly potent (the shipwreck sequence, the tiger, Mychael Danna's Oscar-winning score); happily, it's all in service of the story, and hugely impressive from a sound mixing standpoint.
First and foremost in the bonus features is the four-part making-of documentary "A Filmmaker's Epic Journey" (1:03:23, HD). The most extensive bonus feature, in lieu of a Lee commentary, offers set footage and interviews with Lee, star Suraj Sharma, and others, while covering pre-production writing and conceptualization, various production challenges (including 3D) and post-production effects work and editing.
"A Remarkable Vision" (19:35, HD) is a bit bittersweet, given that special effects company Rhythm and Hues is, as we speak, on the bankruptcy auction block. Rhythm and Hues visual effects supervisor Bill Westerhofer and others provide and overview of what Lee requested int he area of visual effects and how they went about supplying it.
"Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright" (8:35, HD) not surprisingly deals with getting the character of Richard Parker on screen, using a combination of an actual tiger, animatronics, and CGI.
Rounding out the Blu-ray extras is a Gallery (7:28, HD) of pre-production artwork, and a collection of Storyboards (12:23, HD) covering seven sequences.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer