Dir. Ang Lee. Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Put everything else about the movie down for a second, because I promise we’ll get to it, but we have to begin with Suraj Sharma. In his first ever film appearance, Sharma was, before he even turned twenty, asked to be the only corporeal thing on screen for goodness knows how many minutes of a big-budget film based on one of the 21st Century’s most popular books with a brilliant director at the helm and an imaginary tiger on the other end of his scenes. He nails it, scrambling around a lifeboat, floating on a raft, making wry comments at one moment while screaming to God in the next. No one was going to take Daniel Day-Lewis’ accolades away from him that year while he was playing Abraham Lincoln, but leaving out Sharma in favor of Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook or Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables is a huge mistake. Imagine not giving an Oscar nomination to Carey Mulligan in An Education or Gabourey Sidibe in Precious or Saiorse Ronan in Brooklyn, all of whom anchored their films and were present in just about every scene of consequence. Leaving out Sharma is that kind of gap in Oscar history. He deserved better.
At that same Academy Awards ceremony, some other bizarre Pi-related injustices were happening. Argo won Best Picture that year and completed a trifecta of what may well be remembered as the worst consecutive Best Picture winners ever: The King’s Speech, The Artist, and Argo. Based merely on the nominees, it should have been the night when Amour and its director, Michael Haneke, took home the hardware. Haneke’s Oscar went to the guy who directed Pi instead, Ang Lee. One is less upset about Lee’s win than Argo, if for no other reason than the fact that Life of Pi is one of the most remarkably beautiful films of the century. Lee’s oeuvre is a sustained masterclass in beautiful film. Godard famously said that thing about film being truth twenty-four times a second; Lee has found a way to make film beauty twenty-four times a second in the way that Malick, Kubrick, Bergman-with-Nykvist, Powell-with-Pressburger, and Sirk managed to do it. Lee’s little touches in this film (with the assistance, of course, of DP Claudio Miranda) are in the rich earthy tones of Pi’s school, in the dark shadows of the behind-the-scenes zoo, in the cool colors of a freighter’s galley and its hold. Life of Pi, even if much of it came from a computer, knocks its viewers to the ground with magnificent images. Lee teases us at first. He gives us a shot of Elie Alouf swimming in the beautiful Piscine Molitor, with water so clear, Pi (Khan) tells us, that you could make your coffee with it. The blue of the pool matches the blue of the sky in a way that is simply mindbending, giving an answer to the ancient stoner’s question: “Do crabs think fish can fly?” Later on, we are introduced to Richard Parker for a few moments as the newly self-christened Pi (Ayush Tandon) tries to get a good look at him close up. It’s not until we get out onto the ocean, however, that this film’s CGI flexes its muscles. Bill Westenhofer and his team, for one thing, created a tiger for this movie in the way one imagines God did for the planet on the sixth day; the individual hairs and whiskers on that thing are not just individual but imbued with character. Life of Pi really ought to be an unfilmable movie, but Westenhofer’s group made a tiger that, for the viewer, is as threatening and beautiful as the real thing. Richard Parker growls and we fear for Pi’s safety. He hangs on to the edge of the boat for hours after he dove into the ocean to try to catch fish, and while Pi understands that it would be wiser and safer to let Richard Parker drown, he cannot do it. Pi looks into the tiger’s face, which is soaked with water and filled with pleading fear; we know as viewers that, like Pi, we would be unable to kill through inaction. (We can’t help but think of Pi’s father in that moment, whose reply to Pi’s declaration that animals have souls is a little more grounded. When you look in an animal’s eyes, he says, you are seeing your own emotions reflected back at you. Maybe the same is true for CGI animals, but then again I’ve read too much Barry Lopez to even grant Pi’s dad his rejoinder.) And while Richard Parker is of course the key CGI figure of the film, there are others to consider. For one, there are the other animals who are the original passengers of Pi’s Ark. And then there is the carnivorous island. And the stunning reversal of Mamaji swimming: the sky is reflected, in golden clouds, onto a perfectly still sea. And the storms. And the glowing jellyfish giving way to the glowing whale. And the storm of flying fish which leaves scales on Pi’s chest. And on and on – this is a film which is indebted to CGI throughout, even though it’s very easy to pretend that it’s just Richard Parker and the occasional lit-up shot of the ocean meeting the sky.
When Pi lands on the Pacific coast of Mexico (having presumably skipped the leg of the trip where he passes Andy and Red’s graves), Richard Parker jumps off the boat while Pi, spread-eagled rather in the shape of a fallen-down cross, cannot move. The tiger, thin and more tawny than orange now, walks off to the jungle and enters the forest without looking back. Pi is inconsolable; as he explains to Yann Martel (Spall) as an older man, he wanted some kind of closure with the creature he credits with giving him purpose enough to save his own life. But Richard Parker did not provide that sort of closure at all; he’s just a tiger, after all. It turns out that, in all likelihood, Richard Parker is just another name for Pi. Insurance agents interview the teenager in his hospital bed, trying to get some reason for the sinking of the ship. Pi first tells them the story of Pi’s Ark, of the carnivorous island; when pressed for “the truth,” he gives them a story which is, in essence, much the same, but with people instead, including his mother. It is a significantly darker story: among four people, there are three murders, cannibalism, and other savageries which make the skin crawl. “The truth” turns out to be a less palatable story not just to Martel, hearing it decades later, but to the insurance agents; their official report lauds Pi’s 227 days at sea as unique not just for the sheer length of it, but for the fact that he made it with a Bengal tiger in tow. This is turned into something of a moral about pluralism – we hear the same stories about God but each prefer a different telling – which, given my love of film with religious themes, I was a little surprised to find myself nonplussed by. What’s more interesting to me here is that it’s the fourth name that Pi has answered to. (Even the protagonist of The Namesake only has three names; amusingly, it also features Irrfan Khan and Tabu in prominent roles. The more things change, etc.) Pi is born with the inauspicious name of “Piscine Molitor,” which of course sounds like “Pissing.” He obviously grows tired of that one, ultimately committing a powerful enough feat of mathematics to seriously earn the nickname “Pi.” That is the first recreation of himself, one which is entirely cosmetic. If he were born with a name like “Suraj” or “Irrfan,” then he would have had no need to change himself, and short of knowing about a zillion digits of pi, Pi is not much changed here. What is terribly interesting is that Pi gives a new name to himself which was previously associated with an animal. Savagery, in other words, is what kept Pi alive; when he says something along the lines of “caring for Richard Parker gave me purpose,” it is not as simple as saying “I wanted to live.” It is a statement which implies that catering to his animal needs, what is in practice a bestial hunger to live which no creature is without, kept him alive. The only way to stay alive on the ocean for two-thirds of a year was to dehumanize himself. It’s no wonder that he weeps when he sees the tiger walk into the jungle at the end of the film, because he is in essence watching his soul leave his body.
Life of Pi is always going to be compared to Avatar. The two films are only three years distant, for one thing. Life of Pi drew heavily on Avatar in its marketing, though Avatar made five times as much as Pi. They are still the gold standard for CGI in this century, which of course makes them the gold standard for CGI period (apologies to Titanic and Pixar). The pairing of the two forces us to decide on our own system of valuation. Simply put, both films need CGI to function. Both films use it throughout, and while it’s tempting to break down Avatar as the one which immerses the viewer in visual effects more thoroughly, it’s not like Life of Pi doesn’t do the same thing as soon as the storm hits the Japanese freighter. Yet Avatar is, as I’ve been saying for nearly ten years now, our introduction in the real world to Brave New World’s feelies. A re-release of Avatar will be the first movie to add smell and taste and touch to the viewer at the same time as s/he sees and hears, and movies will never be the same. Life of Pi wouldn’t work with taste, though, or smell. Avatar required us to place our belief in Pandora in a way that Life of Pi never really requires us to believe in the Pacific. (Indeed, Pi seriously problematizes what happens on the lifeboat at the end of the film.) There’s not a wrong answer to this proposition, but I think the Avatar-Life of Pi distinction can serve as a real litmus test for what interests a filmgoer. Does one need to believe in the setting with increasingly detailed proof? Or is the setting of a film work best when it’s more allegorical than literal? For what it’s worth, I like Life of Pi more than Avatar.