I do find something peculiarly refreshing about a good shipwreck story. Maybe it’s just my own lifelong, landlocked fascination with the isolation offered by the middle of the ocean. It’s a very particular, and for me particularly bracing, brand of escapism. I’m a sucker for books like Joshua Slocum‘s classic-in-some-circles Sailing Alone Around the World, or the more recent (and more pointedly fetishistic) Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will by Judith Schalansky. When I need to withdraw from the tempest of my own life, I find a psychological balm in pondering stormy seas half a world away.
Ang Lee offered me a nice, shiny glob of that balm with Life of Pi, adapted from the generally-considered-unfilmable novel by Yann Martel. The story is largely concerned with the adventures of the eponymous Pi (Suraj Sharma, carrying the film nicely), who finds himself on a lifeboat with a full grown Bengal tiger after their ship, and Pi’s family, are lost in a storm. A fair amount of time is spent early in the film recounting the amusing story behind Pi’s name, as well as the name of his zoo-raised feline companion, Richard Parker. These are the kinds of colorful backstory character quirks so many novelists love to indulge in. I haven’t read the book, but the film never mentions the fact that the name Richard Parker has been coincidentally shared by several hapless individuals who found themselves shipwrecked, in fiction and reality alike, for centuries.
The tale is related, Rime of the Ancient Mariner-style, by an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to an incredulous writer in Montreal. Promising a story that “will make you believe in God,” he begins by relating his universally inclusive religious views. Raised Hindu, as a child he discovered Christianity, then Islam, Judaism, etc. Perhaps there was a deleted scene about his profound life-changing experiences with Zoroastrianism, but I didn’t go hunting for it. I was already growing impatient for the ship to sink and the adventure proper to commence.
What an adventure, though. Pi’s struggle for survival alone on the open ocean with his jungle cat makes for some truly gorgeous, immersive filmmaking. It’s no wonder Life of Pi snagged the Visual Effects Oscar this year–the film is a feast of visual wonders, not least of which is Richard Parker himself, who is apparently (largely) an all-CGI creation. As the story ventures ever further from the realistic to the fantastic, the splendors become more hallucinogenic, and more splendiferous. I was reminded frequently of a longtime favorite Tom Hanks vehicle, Joe Versus the Volcano. You thought I was going to say Cast Away? Nope, but I liked that one too. Will I ever tire of seeing that guy drifting around the planet on a makeshift raft? Likely not.
The movie concludes with an ending that might potentially alter one’s experience on subsequent viewings, much like the famous shocker in The Sixth Sense. It’s not exactly an OMG GASP! moment, but it might cause you to reinterpret certain events along the way. I’m not sure whether I found the destination especially profound, but I did find the journey profoundly nice to look at. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 3/12/13