Ever since Yann Martel’s Life of Pi won the Booker prize in 2003 there has been intense interest in translating it to the screen. Considered by many to be unfilmable, it seeks to tell the story of one boy’s journey from an idyllic childhood as the son of a zoo keeper in French India to his present life in Montreal by way of a terrible, life altering ordeal – becoming the victim and only survivor of a shipwreck. Only human survivor that is, the boy, Pi, is alone for his 227 day odyssey across the Pacific save for a Bengal tiger with the incongruous name of Richard Parker that managed to escape the wreck and climb aboard his life boat.
Rafe Spall’s Martel stand in, having thrown out a recently completed novel, has come to hear Pi’s story after being told that it could ‘make him believe in God’. A bold claim indeed, it seems younger Pi was something of a spiritual enthusiast – collecting religions the way other boys collect heroes, and attempting to practice them all at the same time! It’s mostly down to this pan-spirtituality that Pi attributes his miraculous survival, that and of course the tiger. Having to fend off Richard Parker and find ways the two of them could co-exist together kept his mind focused and prevented him on dwelling on his greater fears or the earthly loneliness that comes from being the only one of your kind for hundreds of miles.
That said, for all the film’s constant talk about gods and the universe some of its philosophising can’t help but feel a little trite. As for the tale’s claim that it will make you ‘believe in God’, it’s difficult to see how this could be the case. Yes, the boy’s survival is, literally, incredible – miraculous even, as is the way the universe functions as a whole but this story isn’t necessarily any deeper than any other meditations of a wandering soul about why the world is as it is, or indeed how one chooses to view it. Ultimately the film suffers from never being as quite profound as it would like to be and perhaps feels it is.
The real strength of this film is in its visuals which are extremely impressive. There’s no arguing that what Lee has created is revelatory, a series of beautiful, digital vistas more akin to a moving work of art than we are used to seeing from mainstream cinema. The use of 3D might well be the first that justifies its use as a valid artistic tool that is part and parcel of a film’s artistic vision rather than something that can be tacked onto a movie’s name in order to add a few pounds onto the ticket price.
This artistic vision is what makes Life of Pi such an interesting film. Though many will find its storytelling banal or unconvincing, its technical and artistic proficiency cannot be denied. The weaknesses of the central narrative and its slightly saccharine tone mean that Life of Pi may not stand up to repeated viewings, however resisting a first viewing on these grounds would be a mistake as it represents a true evolution in the art of filmmaking.