After nearly four years of work, Ang Lee tonight unveils his much-anticipated film version of Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi, a book that sold 7 million copies worldwide but was thought to be “unfilmable” until technology finally caught up with it the past five years. Having its world premiere as the opening movie of the New York Film Festival, 20th Century Fox is launching what looks like a box office hit and definite Oscar contender — and this despite the fact it features no name stars or obvious hooks. Chalk it up as another contender in the emerging season along with other fall-festival titles like Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, The Master, The Impossible and Anna Karenina among othersCertainly there is no other film like Pi out there this season which ought to give it some distinction in the race.

Related: Hammond On Post-Fest Oscar Buzz: Video

The studio has been touting the visually stunning film since debuting 15 minutes of footage at the Las Vegas CinemaCon exhibitors convention in April, when it became clear this November 21st release could become a major awards player. Right after that presentation one pundit told me, “Well this is one of the Best Picture nominees for sure”. Now the wraps are off the completed film, although there is still some minor mixing, color correction and polishing of some 100 effects shots to be done. The studio had a very small initial screening for literally a handful of journalists in Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon at their Zanuck Theatre (where I caught it), and this morning for press covering NYFF in New York. Early reaction on Twitter has been strong.

To say it lives up to the promise of that CinemaCon preview and subsequent trailer may be an understatement. Lee has pulled off an immense challenge and delivered a wholly cinematic 3D experience and spectacle that ought to make jaws drop and audiences shed a few tears. The story is about a zookeeper’s son who is stranded at sea on a small boat with a fierce Bengal Tiger after the ship carrying a number of zoo animals capsizes. It actually could have been called The Young Man And The Sea, and some will find comparisons to another Fox film: 2000’s Castaway that starred Tom Hanks. But in this era of sequels, remakes and safe studio bets, this is a unique, truly epic adventure and visual masterpiece that uses extraordinary CGI effects in the service of a very human and spiritual story (the adaptation is by David Magee). It is an instant contender for Oscar nominations in Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Sound, Film Editing and Special Effects for a series of dazzling sequences that certainly will catch the eye of Lee’s Academy colleagues. The creation of the zoo animals is quite a feat, and I am told the remarkable star tiger (named Richard Parker) is half-real and half-CGI, although it’s impossible to tell the difference. There are also outstanding human performances to consider from Suraj Sharma as the 17-year-old Pi and Irrfan Khan as the older version of Pi who tells his incredible tale to a reporter.

Fox, still smarting from their Avatar Best Picture loss three years ago, has known for months this film would be their big Oscar play. Even top executives from Fox’s specialty division Fox Searchlight — which has its own strong lineup of contenders this year including the just-announced AFI Fest opener Hitchcock, were offering unsolicited superlatives about Pi when I saw them at the Toronto Film Festival this month.  You don’t hear that often even if they are under the same corporate umbrella. Although Searchlight took home a Best Picture Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire (2008), big Fox last won Best Picture in 1997 for Titanic (but had to share the glory with Paramount, which released it domestically and controlled the campaign that brought 11 Oscars). The studio has home-grown Pi since acquiring book rights in 2002 after producer Gil Netter brought the book to their attention two years earlier. Lee and David Womark co-produced with Netter.

During the CinemaCon presentation, Lee described his film as “an adventure of hope, wonder, survival, spirituality and faith”, and indeed it does have a strong religious aspect to it that should help box office appeal for audiences in the heartland. Lee, a two-time Oscar director winner for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, says he used 3D for the first time not as a gimmick but as “an attempt to put you in the emotional space with these characters as much as the action”.

At CinemaCon, Lee told me this book would have been completely out of the question as a film even five years ago, but the 3D technology had evolved to such a point he was able to get these remarkable shots on water and make the tiger seem 100% authentic. Fortunately he didn’t have to shoot on the open seas as films like Jaws did; he shot all the massive water sequences in specially designed state-of-the-art water tanks in Taiwan with huge wave machines.

It will be interesting to see how the first-night audience responds to the premiere, but Fox is hoping the NYFF launch is just the beginning of another momentous journey for Pi. The race for Best Picture this year could be shaping up to be as fierce at that tiger. The 50th edition of NYFF runs through October 14, when Paramount’s awards hopeful Flight has itsworld premiere thus giving the fest a much more important place than usual in unveiling Oscar contenders.