There are two ways to look at Life of Pi, and in one of them it excels. In the other, unfortunately, it leaves me rather tepid. Let’s start with the good, shall we?
This film looks incredible and features the best 3D I have seen so far, not that that 3D increases the emotional impact of the storyline, just that it looks beautiful. Ang Lee is a masterful filmmaker and, even when he fails, his films are shot with incredible style. Witness his Incredible Hulk movie which, generally, was poor, but was shot through with incredible style, most notably in the way it transitioned from scene to scene by replicating the style of the comic books from which the film was drawn.
What’s notable about the 3D here is that it is the opposite of almost all of the 3D I have seen so far – it is subtle, offering mild degrees of tone and depth to the scene rather than being in your face as most 3D attempts. There were plenty of occasions where I had to remind myself it was in 3D, but that’s a sign of something I have raised before – if you’re not aware of the 3D, what is the point? The real beauty here is in the construction and composition of the shots, not in the 3D that has been added to them. While I won’t be going back to see the film in 2D, I don’t believe that it will lose anything. However, I do fancy that it’s a film that benefits from being seen on the big screen. Once again, Lee glories in creating images that really wash over you (pun semi-intended) and that’s just not possible at home, certainly not to the extent that is possible in the cinema.
One note, my partner found herself seasick for a good portion of the film, so the big screen may not be ideal for all. Unless this was the result of the 3D.
In addition it’s worth saying that both the acting and the visual effects are uniformly excellent. Of particular note is the tiger, Richard Parker, who I still can’t decide as to whether he was real, green screened, or completely created inside a computer. Every aspect of his behaviour seemed so utterly true, and yet it seems so impossible to have actually filmed that it must have been computerised, in which case, hats off to the technical guys. It appears we have crossed the uncanny valley…
Unfortunately we now have to come onto the more negative aspects of the film, and I feel a little cruel raising them. I have absolutely no doubt of the sincerity of Ang Lee’s intentions behind the messages of the film (or those of Yann Martel the author of the original book and co-writer of the screenplay), but I just wasn’t buying into the philosophy behind the story.
Early on, Pi tells us (in the form of audience surrogate “The Writer”, played by Rafe Spall):
I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God.
But while this is a story of a boy and his endurance, combined with his faith, it was not a film which made me think about my own beliefs. Perhaps I am not the ideal audience, not being a spiritual person myself anyway, but given these are the film’s own lofty intentions, I feel it shouldn’t really reflect badly on me. There are moments of beauty, moments of terror, moments of levity dotted throughout but ultimately I felt that I was being spun a yarn which lacked a true heart, a true emotional pull that I could latch on to.
There are two notable comparators here – both of which I have only seen once, and some time ago at that, so forgive me if I misremember some details – and they are Castaway and Big Fish. Castaway is the logical parallel being a film about someone who is shipwrecked alone and has to survive against the odds but where the enormity of Tom Hanks’ endurance is heightened by the stark honesty on display in the film, here the nature of the story-telling lessons the fight put up by Pi in his battle to make it back to humanity.
WARNING – MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS (not directly but you may infer the ending from the details below)
The link to Big Fish, on the other hand, is the regarding the nature of tall tales and what they mean to the audience. In Big Fish, a father on his deathbed is castigated by his son for never telling him the truth about his adventures – how could the son ever know his father if his father never told the truth? But there I felt we went through an emotional joinery – the tall tale told by the father carries an emotional truth which hits home in shared moments with his son and allows them both to cope with the father’s forthcoming demise. I remember it as a beautiful film about life and death and what we tell ourselves to cope with these.
In Life of Pi the emotional truth is kept too distant. We are told the story of Pi’s battle with Richard Parker but it’s never clear what this is supposed to signify. This is always a tricky tightrope to walk – you don’t want to spell things out for your audience but equally if you don’t give the right clues your audience won’t connect. Clearly many people are connecting, but for me this wasn’t there. Add this to the fact that during the resolution a reinterpretation of the events you have seen is very clearly spelled out in just a few minutes of screen time – an interpretation which merits considerable emotional weight but is just tossed off with nary a care.
That’s not to say the film is a failure, but it would be wrong to call it an outright success. Few filmmakers would be capable of bringing a film of such beauty to the screen and if 2013 can bring something to the screen that looks even half as good, we’ll have a visual treat on our hands. However, for me, it just doesn’t have the humanity to be considered a great in the way many of been portraying it.
6.5/10 (4 stars)