Bemoaning the cinema’s imminent death is a pastime that’s almost as old as the cinema itself, but here we are more than 100 years later, and movies like Life of Pi continue to prove that the cinema is still just being invented. Films eulogizing film have practically become a genre unto themselves (Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, also playing at NYFF, provides a paradoxically inspiring example), and yet it’s stories like these -- stories that hinge upon the idea that we’ve cannibalized our world for its wonders -- that most reliably use the medium to show us things that we’ve never seen before and couldn’t possibly see otherwise.
The opening film of the 2012 New York Film Festival, Ang Lee’s vivid and visionary adaptation of Yann Martel’s globally beloved novel often struggles to streamline the best seller into an emotionally coherent cinematic experience, but Life of Pi is also punctuated with some of the most thrilling sequences to have ever graced a movie screen, the film ultimately resolving itself as an indelible reminder that the cinema will never die so long as it continues to recognize that capturing reality isn’t nearly as interesting as letting it go.
At its best, Life of Pi plays out like a painterly riff on Cast Away, but if Tom Hanks were played by a gangly Indian boy and Wilson recast as a ferocious Bengal tiger with the name of a British gentleman and the teeth of a perfect killing machine. Unfortunately, Lee’s sumptuous Oscar contender spends far too much of its time on land. The clumsy first act of this deceptively simple story unfolds like a pop-up children’s book for spiritually curious youths (perhaps one written by C.S. Lewis and edited by Christopher Hitchens).
As in Martel’s novel, the film begins on a menagerie in French India circa 1970, where a young boy called Piscine lives with his wealthy family and all of their exotic pets. Little Piscine (which sounds like “pissing,” and is shortened to “Pi” as soon as the boy’s classmates figure that out) is a sponge for world religions, collecting various faiths the way that some kids collect baseball cards. Jesus, Allah, the 330 million deities of Hinduism -- Pi wants to know them all. But Pi’s fondness for faiths is shaken up in the wake of a dangerous encounter with Richard Parker, his father’s new tiger (the name is the result of a clerical error and a nod to Edgar Allan Poe), after which he begins to realize that stories which help to explain the past often have little bearing on the events of the present. Pi’s father soon tells his brood that they’re packing it up and moving to Winnipeg, but before you can say We Sold a Zoo, their cargo ship is drowned by a violent storm, Pi and a few wild animals clinging to a liferaft as the only survivors.
It’s bright and confident stuff, but the script (by Finding Neverland’s David Magee) is largely unable to solve the novel’s anecdotal first-person perspective. Magee’s decision to present the story as an interview between an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, sensitive but typecast) and a nameless writer (Rafe Spall) is thematically lucid but narratively deadening -- the framing device underscores Martel’s agnostic approach to storytelling as a means to understanding a pitiless world, but the archaic structure is wildly incongruous with a movie that otherwise feels so fresh, and it has an emotionally distancing effect that limits this potentially moving epic to the arena of mere allegory.
But all of that dies with the rest of Pi’s family (remember: pitiless). Once all hell breaks lose on that doomed cargo ship (captained by... Gerard Depardieu?), Life of Pi becomes a sudden revelation, Ang Lee doing for the Pacific Ocean what James Cameron did for Pandora. Lee is one of those rare filmmakers who refuses to helm a project unless it terrifies him, but while his directorial dexterity is nearly unparalleled (credits include Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), it’s still incredible to watch him attack a story of such technical grandeur like he does this every time out. Lee claims that he only got about an eighth of the shots he intended, but his camera is never erratic or overbusy, and its careful placement beautifully captures the trials of a boy adrift between tragedy and adventure (for the brunt of the movie, Pi is serviceably played by newcomer Suraj Sharma). The painterly visuals often recalls the likes of The Lovely Bones, but if that was Bob Ross, this is Cezanne.
Lee’s use of 3D -- the best since Hugo -- proves that while the format is pushed for the money, it’s meant for the masters. Lee wrings every drop from that added dimension (this includes having a tiger pee directly into your face), and the night-time sequences use the extra depth to transform Pi’s raft into the centerpiece of a half-submerged snow globe, dizzy with wonder and carefully unreal. As for Richard Parker, the tiger is so present and alive that he might as well have been named Andy Serkis. The next evolution of the technology that brought Caesar to life in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Richard Parker is a marvel, and the heart of the film.
Relative to his CG predecessors, Parker is asked to do less and mean more, and the tiger’s astonishing believability serves as a much-needed reminder that some bracingly human movies are only now becoming possible. Lee even switches between aspect ratios a few times, as if just to remind you that what you’re seeing isn’t as important as how you’re seeing it. Altogether, Life of Pi is magnificent when it appeals purely to the senses, Pi and Richard Parker’s tenuous alliance wordlessly expressing the boy’s struggle to maintain hope without an organized religion to assure him that his faith is well-placed.
Ultimately, Lee’s vision allows the film’s sucker-punch finale to work in spite of the script’s inability to prime you for it. His movie, for all of its hiccups, secularly understands that -- at a certain point -- we all have to tell our own stories. Life of Pi argues that the cinema will never die, because sometimes we have to believe them, too.