Science fiction and horror films often depend on the creation of credible creatures to be effective, but computer-generating believable zoo animals is trickier – just ask the makers of Jumanji – because everyone knows what they look like. So Ang Lee had his work cut out for him planning a film of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel Life of Pi, and not just because a large proportion of the book has a young man marooned at sea with a Bengal tiger. There’s also the equally taxing problem of distilling a suitable narrative thread from the book, which must now join the ranks of other supposedly “unfilmable” novels which have, in fact, been filmed, and very satisfactorily. Finally, there’s the more prosaic business of planning a film with a budget north of $100 million, with no room for a movie star to anchor it, instead requiring a young Indian actor (in this case, Suraj Sharma) to virtually carry the film by himself. The fact that Ang Lee takes all of these issues, and considerably more, in his stride, is a testament to the director’s considerable courage, vision, artistry and skill – as are the film’s eleven Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture.
The film is bookended by scenes in which a writer looking for inspiration (Rafe Spall) visits the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear the extraordinary story of how, as a young man, he survived the sinking of a ship carrying his family and their zoo animals from India to a new life in Canada. Before the doomed vessel sets sail, David Magee’s remarkable screenplay establishes Pi’s life in Pondicherry, India, focusing on two earlier periods in his life (aged 5, and around 11) before the narrative sets sail for more treacherous waters. The sinking of the ship itself is breathtakingly staged, but this scene, which would serve as the money shot of any summer blockbuster, is merely the precursor to the main body of the story, in which Pi battles the sea, the elements, and potential starvation, amid an uneasy detente with a 500-pound predator.
Of course, as readers of the book will know, Martel’s book is strong on metaphor, symbolism and spiritual/religious themes, and Lee doesn’t short-change audiences in these loftier, more metaphysical areas. Whether or not you take these on board is up to you; either way, Life of Pi is a masterpiece, worthy of as many viewings as interpretations. ★★★★★