Ang Lee has had a semi-cursed career despite his great success. First he was robbed over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (losing to Gladiator); then he face-planted with the disastrous Gumby, I mean Hulk (two words: hulk dogs); then he wins Best Director for Brokeback Mountain while the Best Picture Oscar went to the toxic and despicable Crash (the liberal guilt trip one, not the David Cronenberg car fetish freak show). Now he's being bruited as a likely winner again for Best Director since Argo is the heavy favorite to win the top prize, but since Ben Affleck wasn't nominated, they may pity price Lee again for Life of Pi, the movie I'd vote for out of the this year's batch I've seen. (At this time I have seen Django Unchained yet and I'm skipping Amour.)
If you've seen the trailers or heard anything about it, you know that Life of Pi is about a young man who is left lost at sea with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the back story on that is cute) after the ship carrying his family and the animals from their zoo as they emigrated from India to Canada sinks in a violent storm. What the trailers and PR haven't really mentioned is the deeply spiritual tale being told. The first act of the movie covers with a light touch Pi's sampling of the Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, while his father encourages him to focus on reason (i.e. science) instead of unknowable god(s). People get the heebie-jeebies about religion in their entertainment, but it's not bludgeoning and it's really, REALLY important about what happens at the end.
Since the story is told to a writer by an older Pi, the matter of if he's going to survive his ordeal is never in doubt. Where some controversy has erupted is in what happens in the last 15 minutes which calls into question everything we've been shown for the past hour-plus. I'd heard many people were turned-off or felt betrayed by the ending, but it worked for me in a way the howlingly overrated Beasts of the Southern Wild didn't because its question about how people believe (or not) in God (capital G) neatly dovetail with my views on the subject. (See below if you're interested.) The way everything we've been shown gets flipped and reconsidered - and how we react - doesn't pull the rug out from under the viewer as much as tests whether they were paying attention to the setup and the implicit themes it was laying out.
Even if you don't buy into the religious aspect of Life of Pi, it's a sumptuous visual feast of surreal beauty and beautiful menace as an army of special effects wizards spent over 18 months in post-production taking the footage of Suraj Sharma on an empty boat in a wave tank and turning it into an ocean that's alternately raging and placid and creating a digital tiger so realistic that the only real giveaway that it's not real is that there's no way a real tiger could've been trained to do so many things it's required to do like be seasick or emaciated from starvation. (If you've already seen it or don't care about spoilers, look below the trailer.) It's remarkable and should earn Rhythm and Hues a Best Visual Effects Oscar in two days, which will be bittersweet because they entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy recently and will likely be dissolved, a victim of doing business in California with its punishing taxes. Pity.
Life of Pi has been somewhat of a sleeper hit around the world and it was a big risk for the studio to back because putting down $125 million to make a movie with no stars and isn't obviously about special effects and whose subject is the nature of belief in God; it takes a leap of...you know. While it'd be a stunning upset to actually win Best Picture, if I had a vote, it probably would've earned it.
Score: 8/10. Rent the Blu-ray.
And now it's time for Theology With Dirk...
I believe in God and that He created the Universe and all the stuff on Earth. (No, He didn't do it 6000 years ago, like the stereotypical "Sky Man believer" gets painted by the atheist media as believing; this ball has been rolling a looooooong time.) The arrogant a-hole atheists (alliteration!) prefer the Big Bang Theory despite the big problem that their all-holy 2nd Law of Thermodynamics doesn't explain where the seed matter for the Universe came from. Steven Hawking jumped his wheelchair over the shark when he torched his credibility claiming that the original matter simply came into being. WTF?!? It just happened? Oh, yes, that is certainly more plausible than an omnipotent Creator who made everything and then vacated the premises much like Dr. Manhattan at the end of Watchmen.
The point is that WE ARE HERE DESPITE THE EVIDENCE. Neither the Coke (Big Bang) or Pepsi (God) theories of creation/Creation work if you're honest about it, so I've long thought that people just pick the story that allows them to sleep better at night. Atheists claim to be about reason over faith, but when you examine the dogmas and rituals they follow, it becomes clear that they're just as religious, if not more so, than the "Sky Man believers" they sneer at; all they've done is kick out God from their secular church. I think most religious people understand that there's a proof deficit in their belief structure, but if there was 110% solid evidence for God, then it wouldn't be called a "faith" would it? The spin at the end of the movie requires you to make a choice of your own and that's a bold, but rewarding risk taken.