Life of Pi claims it will make viewers believe in God, but it can also be taken as a hell of a rousing open-boat adventure. In particular, the computer graphics represent a milestone of the technique.
Pi (Irrfan Khan) is a demurely friendly professor in modern Montreal, who is lunching with an avid, even moist-eyed American (Rafe Spall), whose last novel was stillborn. Pi tells the story of his singular voyage to the Newer World from his middle-class home in the French colony of Pondicherry. The son of a man who believes only in logic, Pi becomes pious in all the religions, in passages that director Ang Lee envisions as a handsome pastiche of filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Dad runs a zoo; when the money runs short, the family must sell the critters to overseas collectors. The animal freighter sinks, and the young Pi (Suraj Sharma), the sole human survivor, is stranded on a 20-foot-lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Then, out of the waves comes the zoo's tiger. When the fur stops flying, Pi and the tiger are the lone shipmates.
Lee finesses the predicament, from its outlandish humor to its poignant side. Worn down by weeks of certain doom, Pi puts his trust in providence. The seas are sometimes so mill-pond flat and mirror-clear that you could walk on water, or they boil with phosphorescence, making the boat appear to be floating through space in reflected stars.
The film didn't make me a believer—except maybe in the god of stories. Life of Pi seems more excitingly pagan than anything else, though the godless might be touched with a wave of Hindu pity for the sorrowful carnival of the world, the cycle of eating and being eaten.
The film also deploys some Deepak Chopra–style bromides, such as the old wheeze that "science can tell us about what's out there, but not what's in here." But whatever Life of Pi is trying to say about the wheel of suffering, it at least says it much more interestingly than Cloud Atlas.
'Life of Pi' opens Friday, Nov. 23, in wide release.