Up until I saw Life of Pi, Skyfall was the most gorgeous film I had seen this year. But now that I have seen Life of Pi, Skyfall has been dethroned.
I hung back from this movie for quite a while. The trailer I had seen put me in mind of a CGI-laden, 3-D, special effects extravaganza that would subsume the heart of the original story. CGI animals? Well, I’d seen that before, in Narnia, and it looked unrealistic then; I was sure there was no way they could pull it off now, a mere few years later.
I won’t say that the CGI animals of Life of Pi never look unrealistic, because they do. CGI is at its best when it’s surreal landscapes; it’s not quite so believable when dealing with living, moving creatures. But if one of the worst things that can be said about Life of Pi is that its CGI zebra looks fake, then it’s safe to say that Life of Pi is a good movie.
The story is a simple one—a boy finds himself adrift on a raft with a couple of animals, which are quickly dispatched, leaving him alone with a hungry, dangerous tiger. The movie’s real focus, though, isn’t on survival or even the curious bond between boy and tiger, but rather on an exploration of what drives men to believe in God. In case you lose sight of that central God theme, don’t worry; the movie will remind you about it every ten minutes or so.
At the end of Life of Pi, I was left a little confused and nonplussed—what did it all mean? Apparently this was only because I had failed to understand the penultimate line of dialogue in the film; after reading it on IMDB, my appreciation for this movie rose several notches. One line of dialogue can make the difference between a good film and a great one. It’s a movie about the forces that compel humankind to seek out spirituality, about the power of storytelling and the line between truth and fiction.
Life of Pi is a film that is at turns charming, beautiful, and terrifying. It is an effects film unlike any other, a film that seeks more than anything to inspire its audience with a sense of wonder and awe. And it works, thanks to a series of compelling visuals and its themes which, while at times overbearing, add a sense of cohesion to Pi´s disjointed narrative. Scenes that seemed overdone in the trailer work in the actual film—the shipwreck scene is truly terrifying, a scene in which a glowing whale leaps from the ocean is mesmerizing and frightening all at once, and a second storm manages to be almost as frightening as the first. The only real misstep is a scene involving a horde of flying fish leaping across the boat. The scene feels both contrived and cartoonish; contrived that food would appear so plentifully just at the moment when Pi was facing down a hungry tiger, and cartoonish because the the CGI fish look absurd. I imagine this was a scene designed to take full use of Life of Pi’s 3D effects, but never has a scene designed mainly to show off 3D ever been anything but awkward in 2D.
It’s hard to talk about what makes Life of Pi great or otherwise without talking about its ending, since much of the film’s meaning only becomes apparent in the last twenty minutes. I won’t spoil the movie, but suffice it to say that an intriguing plot development in the third act is perhaps not given the screentime or exploration it deserves. That might be my greatest criticism of Life of Pi–that its ending is a bit too rushed to make the full impact it should. On the whole, though, Life of Pi is a movie with stunning visuals (all the more impressive considering the subject matter is a boy and a tiger adrift on a single small lifeboat) and a lot of heart, and that’s enough to propel it to a chance at the Oscars, where it just might deserve to win.