Framed with the narrative hook of a lost author seeking his next hit in the company of a teacher, Life of Pi is almost entirely first person. Pi (Suraj Sharma/Irrfan Khan) recounts his story of months at sea with outstanding attention to detail… and possible misdirection.
Pi was a teenager when he was forced to leave his native India at his parent’s will. They ran a zoo, and regulations forced them out, sending them onto the sea with a Canadian destination. Storms ensue, capsizing the vessel in a stunningly tragic yet beautiful sequence of cinematic girth, landing Pi as a lone human survivor.
He has company, a lonely orangutang, an injured zerba, voracious hyena, and a tiger wiling to wait things out. Nature takes its course, the vegetarian Pi appalled but with no escape. The animal survivor tops the food chain, a tiger inadvertently named Richard Parker after the hunter who originally captured it.
The film becomes a test of wills. Pi is pushed away from life boat onto a makeshift raft, leaving the tiger to rule his now miniscule domain. Life of Pi settles much like the sea around it, Pi and the tiger fending for themselves over food and drinkable water. Pi’s internal struggle becomes caring for the tiger despite its ability to kill, a genuine sympathy and companionship forming between them. With all of the sights on display, anyone could find a common ground.
In the current state of film, most moviegoers bemoan the use of CGI. We call it out, chastise its overuse, and blast it when we catch it. So much of Life of Pi is done in the virtual lens, it will boggle the mind for the better. Even the tiger shifts between a real animal and a CG one, completely seamless in those transitions, even between edits. The ocean itself becomes surreal, with digital clouds, lighting, and stunning displays of cinematic enormity. A wide swatch of life is captured, varied in its appearances and celebrated for its beauty or danger.
Life of Pi does not begin in the water however, although Pi’s younger days are with an uncle who was a champion swimmer. He comes across as a confused young man, seeking answers from all religions which he still carries with him to adulthood. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and more faiths are observed, a way to bring him closer to whatever potential God may be listening. Pi’s journey of intense survival is thus a philosophical one, turned on its head in the closing moments to bring the material into focus. It’s a battle of belief against potential reality, bringing sense to those disbelievers as to why some people need the help of religious text.
This is Ang Lee’s most thought provoking work, and unquestionably his most remarkable. Vibrancy within these images – and their reliance on unfortunately chastised 3D – tells a spectacular story, often without words. That is what we have the medium for, a visual platform of expression that can exist on an existential plane or one based on reality. Life of Pi does both.
Captured digitally with an immeasurable amount of work poured into digital effects, hardly anything here is real. Life of Pi is all style, and with the freedom work the visuals, the results are a marvel. Fox’s encode? It remains out of the way. That was the only genuine barrier, and Pi proves itself to be a challenge. Storms are thick with splashing water, rain, and jarring camera motions, yet there is no artifacting to be found. Images stay crisp without the intrusion of visible compression.
High points? The entire disc. Every scene is awash with jaw dropping imagery, splashed with dense color and perfectionist focus. Each new shot brings a new hue or color gradient to admire, even with the ocean being the only backdrop for miles. Night brings bio-luminescence, or sharply blue moonlight. Sunrises brighten with yellows and oranges. Gray scale steps in with rain, and the ocean itself will carry the colors that surround it. Landscapes flourish with bountiful greens, and the warmth added to Pi’s younger flashbacks are natural without impeding on flesh tones.
And detail? Oh glorious detail. Facial definition is at the peak of the format, resolved impeccably and consistently. The only bother are the occasional visual effects that smooth out the actors with a softer focus, creating a barrier to high fidelity detail. Those shots are few, and as a result, Pi becomes a sterling example of what the resolution of the format can accomplish. Richard Parker, CG or otherwise, is a majestic animal. In close or from afar, his fur is perfectly resolved. In fact, his close-ups best even the human ones; you can appreciate the density of his coat.
The final piece to this puzzle of perfection are the black levels, with a generous level of density produced at all times. Even when potential creeps in for the temptation to wash out – say the gray sky overcast – they earn their keep. What black levels add to a sequence of glowing jellyfish is impossible to calculate, and overall, their start-to-finish completionist workload cannot go by without a compliment. This is the type of film you wish would only release to Blu-ray. The thought of dumbing down the style for the outdated resolution of DVD or sluggish codecs of streaming services is practically offensive to the source material.
The pure bliss and wonder of the 3D landscape one-ups the 2D, a marvelous journey into the realm Pi crafts. The opening credits seem insurmountable in their beauty, glorious images of wildlife that poke at the lens or sit back to let the viewer enjoy. The way plants are layered and the ground disappears into a horizon is jaw-dropping. Into the story, the 3D only aides the scale and enormity.
There are so many sequences to dissect and discuss, from Pi floating in front of the ship as it dips below the surface to the sun’s rays creating a flare effect at the viewer. Shots of Richard Parker glaring towards the screen are magical, and Pi’s few means of defense are situated as to be in direct contact with the camera. Shots are incredibly crafted to maximize the depth, and others are just pure showpieces. The awesomeness of the fish leaping out of a false 2.35:1 frame is stunning, and the visions (including one of a dream) are as perfect as they come. This is more than a demo, but a piece that sells everything 3D can accomplish in terms of narrative.
As sensational as the visuals are, they are only made stronger through the use of a DTS-HD 7.1 mix that powers through the kinetic action, and fills in the softer moments. Reference material comes from two storm scenes, one as the boat meets its fate at the bottom of the ocean, the other late at 1:28:00. Wind and waves are impressive for the capsizing, but so is the interior. The ship takes the brunt of the storm and the sound resonates as a deep groan. Metal begins to strain, and water pounds the outside paint. It feels immense, and once outside, it becomes a showcase of weather sound design.
Pi’s adventure is persistent, light winds and splashing water ever present as he deals with his day-to-day survival. A scene dealing with flying fish is a winner as they buzz and splash around the boat, tracking through the stereos and rears aggressively. The viewer takes a centralized location. Animal sounds are prevalent too during a sequence that would be a spoiler to discuss.
This is a technical marvel on every level a film can be, from spacious audio design to the accompanying visuals. LFE is tight and full, resonating while sucking the air out of the room with its presence, yet never so bold as to wash out the purity of the surround work. Life is Pi is masterful with its sound and blending to match the video.
Ang Lee does not offer a commentary, but charts his methods in A Filmmaker’s Journey, a four-part, hour long look at the film and the determination to get it made. Production value is high, and interviews generally honest without much of the promotional tone. A Remarkable Vision highlights the visual effects, which when known, only make the film that much more striking. Tiger Burns Bright hones in on the tiger training scene that mixes real and artificial to an imperceptible degree. Gallery and storyboards can be sifted through too.
BD-Live plays host to two additional pieces as well, something that rarely can be said of the tech. A brief feature focuses on storytelling and one deleted scene is offered, questioning as to why these were not on the disc itself.
Note: Later screens do reveal some plot points.