What sets Ang Lee apart from most modern directors is his versatility – over the past couple of decades, the man has worked across a number of different genres and delivered great results each time. From Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, to interesting comic-book failure Hulk, action-wuxia classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and gay romantic drama in Brokeback Mountain, there’s a Kubrickian quality to Lee’s choices, a willingness to take on any genre no matter how far out there. Such choices point to Lee being a director at the top of his game. And though his movies seem so varied in content, they’re united by the common theme of excellent, striking visuals; Lee’s films tend to look beautiful. So Lee’s latest film – Life of Pi – a seemingly out-there choice based on a supposedly unfilmable novel by Yann Martel – actually fits pretty nicely into his resume, and Lee delivers another fantastic visual treat for cinemas this Christmas season.Though the film’s marketing has focused on the story’s more unusual elements – boy, boat, tiger – Life of Pi actually tells a much broader tale. It’s a story within a story – a struggling writer, whilst touring India for inspiration, comes across the hint of an amazing tale – one which will make you believe in God apparently – and so traces it back to its creator – Pi (Irrfan Khan in the present, Suraj Sharma in the past), who recounts an unbelievable story from his youth. Beginning with a humorous tale regarding his unusual name and launching into his spiritual wanderings (following Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, as all are simply different paths to the same God), Pi takes the audience through his history, focusing on his parent’s beautiful, tropical zoo. When things start to look rough in India, Pi’s parents believe its time to jump ship, and so the whole family, and whole family business, are packed into a freighter bound for Canada, with the dream of starting a new life.The boat however sinks in a brilliant and tense scene, and Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with a dying zebra, broken orang-utan and reckless hyena. A grim situation, made grimmer when the animals begin to fight, and a fourth, ferocious stowaway is revealed in the form of 450 pound Bengal tiger Richard Parker. Terrified and faced with the threat of ocean, elements, and tiger, Pi must learn to work with what he’s got, and develop a relationship with the feline beast if he’s going to survive his trip. And so begins a fascinating tale of faith, resilience and human endurance, one which will inspire questions on the nature of survival, and the hunt for God. Of course, what’s most striking with Life of Pi are the stunning visuals. Lee has crafted a visual masterpiece here, from the earthy calms of India at the beginning to the beautiful, endless expanses of the ocean. The novel is full of poetic descriptions of sky and sea and Lee adapts these elements perfectly with the sheer blinding look of everything – the boat floating on a clear, cloud-reflecting sky, a glowing school of jellyfish unlike anything you’ve seen before, vast sublime storms and vermilion, paradise-inspiring sunrises. It’s a film to completely lose yourself, where you bask in the surreal sea imagery and seemingly endless colour palette. For a film about faith, the search for God and strength of humanity, its fitting that it would look this incredible. It’s also, one of the few films actually worth seeing in 3D – Lee uses the technique to create seamless blends between ocean and sky, as well as some enticing visual wells to fall down – take seeing the world in Vishnu’s mouth, or the tour of what Richard Parker is ‘looking at’ for example – 3D works amazingly well here and manages to pull the audience deeper into what is already a visual masterpiece. Life of Pi proves that 3D can be a powerful cinematic tool if put into the hands of an expert film-maker. Visuals aside, this is, for the majority of its run-time, a one man show, so how does Suraj Sharma cope as Pi? The answer is very well indeed. A newcomer to acting, Sharma is very likeable in the role. He’s a raft for the audience to hold onto, managing levels of quiet desperation, despair and terror when needed to, but also proving to be funny and endearing. The audience want him to succeed.What’s most striking about Sharma’s performance is that he manages to build a convincing relationship with an animal/CGI creation, something many other actors have failed to do in the past. Richard Parker too is great as both a character – proving to be very loveable as the film progresses, the soul of the movie, the rock which Pi hangs onto – but he also works on a technical level too. Credit needs to be given to the animal stunt guys and computer teams here – the transitions between tiger and computerised tiger are seamless and barely noticeable, and Richard Parker has so much personality in his facial expressions. He’s sure to become one of the year’s most loved cinematic creations.Life of Pi is a powerful story with a heavy basis in magical realism and it’s hard not to get completely drawn in. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll have no idea how this story is going to play out, and will be captivated to the end. The themes throughout are interesting and for the most part, delivered in a subtle way straight from the novel – the idea of the animal within us all comes across the strongest, with the quest for God faltering slightly. The novel communicates better Pi’s faith – the early religious scenes, pre-boat, are skimmed over in the movie, and in the book, we’re given a great sense of Pi’s belief in his survival being a miracle from above, with both himself and Richard Parker standing in as God like figures at times. There’s also a slight issue with the ending – there’s a semi-twist which calls into question everything the audience has seen. This moment works better in the novel as the novel is more ambiguous with its answers, whereas the film is more heavy handed, and the twist may leave audiences feeling cheated and sour. The problem is the movie is such an enduring, beautiful spectacle that the darker reveal at the climax poisons what’s come before, and the message is muddled too; the story is supposed to make people believe in God but basically suggests religion is nothing more than a lie, a positive alternative to a grim truth. The spiritual elements like this are stronger in the book, and somewhat distracting within the film.That said, Life of Pi is an experience, and a movie which grows on you once you walk out of the cinema. The plethora of themes and ideas on display, the debate about the ending, the nature of storytelling, and sheer orgasmic visual spectacle of what’s on screen certainly sink into the mind; Life of Pi is an experience and remains with you for days to come. Lee has added another fantastic movie to his canon and delivered a powerful and faithful adaptation to Martel’s excellent novel. A must to see in the cinema and a must to see in 3D, Life of Pi is the movie to talk about this season, and it would be surprising if it doesn’t get a Best Picture nod. A truly beautiful movie experience.
All images courtesy of 20th Century Fox.