Thursday, 10 January 2013

DRAMA: Life of Pi (2012)

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Life of Pi (USA, 2012)
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain 

IMDb Top 250: #181 (10/1/13)

There is a strange and often arrogant presumption that certain books are 'un-filmable'. Whenever a new literary adaptation arrives in cinemas, there is always a clamour that "the book is better", implying that visual media like film and television will always be inferior to the written word. This clamour becomes all the more deafening when dealing with the likes of Cloud Atlas or The Time-Traveller's Wife, works regarded as such pure examples of written storytelling that it seems almost unthinkable to put them on screen.

What this line of reasoning ignores is that books and films are not stand-alone entities in and of themselves. They are instead different means to tell the same stories, each with their inherent assets and shortcomings. With Life of Pi, Ang Lee gives us a masterful cinematic experience which is also very faithful to both the story and spirit to Yann Martel's novel. While it never entirely soars like We Need To Talk About Kevin, you would struggle to find a more visually breath-taking film this year.
Like many 'un-filmable' books, Life of Pi's production history is a long and winding road. The film was originally going to be helmed by M. Night Shyamalan, who came on board in 2000 and was set to direct after production wrapped on The Village. Shyamalan eventually got cold feet over the supposed 'twist ending' of the story, fearing it would both add to his typecasting and damage the audiences' expectations. The project was then handed to Alfonso Cuarón, who dropped out to direct Children of Men, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who spent more than two years doing re-writes before giving up in 2009.
The film finally comes to us under the direction of Ang Lee, and for the all the talents of the other directors, this turned out to be the right decision. Lee is a great storyteller who combines a stunning visual eye with rich characterisation to create a genuinely memorable experience. His films haven't always had the depth that you would expect, but with the exception of Hulk he has yet to make a film which isn't driven by a strong and gripping narrative. Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its many beautiful fight scenes, keeps pulling us back to the drama between the characters.
In Life of Pi, Lee really excels himself. The film is outstandingly beautiful on many levels, with a rich colour palette and an engrossingly dreamy sensibility. The film is shot by Claudio Miranda, who rose through the ranks working for David Fincher and recently helmed the visually stunning (but ultimately dull) Tron Legacy. He fills the screen with a wide range of enticing and fascinating colours, capturing the hallucinogenic state of Pi's surroundings while also painting a vibrant portrait of India. All the scenes on water have both a genuine physical force and an undeniably painterly quality, particularly the scene with the squid dividing into multiple different animals.
One of the most appealing things about Life of Pi is its evocation of India (Pondicherry to be exact). Lee resists giving us a cliché-ridden pantomime version of India, a la The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, preferring instead to depict the formative years of Pi in both stark and exquisite detail. There are numerous surprising scenes which entrench us in his world, such as the explanation of the different dance moves performed by Pi's girlfriend. Put simply, all the little details that would normally be skimped on are given the time and space they need to take on significance and meaning.
This brings us to the special effects of the film, which are also quite outstanding. CGI is abundantly used, for the obvious reason that real animals could not be asked to perform or withstand half of the feats that they go through in the story, and that's before we get to their interactions with Pi. Normally I would complain at this point, having criticised the likes of Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Menace and The Lovely Bones for needlessly relying on CG effects and not properly integrating them into the physical world of the characters. But because the tone of the film is so dreamy and fantastical, it makes complete sense for so much of Pi's world to be rendered this way. If nothing else, Richard Parker the tiger features some of the best CGI ever seen on film, with believable emotions and physical movements as well as superb attention to detail on the part of the animators.
The one visual aspect that doesn't work is the 3D. For all the talk about the film pushing the boundaries of what the technology could do, the 3D is unnecessary and executed in a trashy, gratuitous way. Many shots in the film are offputtingly showy, such as the flying fish, the bird poking at the screen and the tiger leaping out from under the tarpaulin (an old trick that dates back to Bwana Devil and its promise of "a lion in your lap!"). Moreover, in the quieter scenes on solid ground, the 3D creates the impression of the characters walking or sitting in front of a backdrop rather than actually being in the scene. Rather than immerse us in the story, the 3D alienates us, and not in a deliberate, Brechtian manner.
In terms of the performances, the film also scores very highly. Both the young and old versions of Pi are well-played, with Suraj Sharma capturing the adult's sense of peace and playfulness, and Irrfan Khan handling the darker, more physical scenes with both gusto and sensitivity. Gerard Depardieu makes an enjoyable cameo as the French cook, getting in just enough of his cruel streak without giving too much away. The only questionable piece of casting is Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire after Lee worried that the Spider-Man star would be too recognisable to carry the part off. Spall has very little to do in the film, and he underplays almost everything he does, but he is still likeable and pleasing in his own way.
You may have noticed that I have come more than half-way into my review and have yet to seriously address the story of Life of Pi. This will send alarm bells ringing among a great many people, and not just those familiar with my reviews; if I've gone this far without talking about the plot, it must mean that it isn't any good. In the past I've defended several films with flawed storytelling, either on the grounds of the ideas they raise (The Man Who Fell to Earth) or their sheer, memorable weirdness (The Magic Christian). With Life of Pi, the storytelling is adept and well-paced - it's the story itself that is problematic.
One of the central themes of Life of Pi is how truth can be conveyed through storytelling, and choosing which story is more reflective of the truth (or at least, the truth we want to believe in). Pi gives two different accounts of the same story in the film - one is fantastical and extraordinary to the point of disbelief (e.g. a carnivorous island), the other is blunt, depressing and straightforward. He then invites the writer to decide which is the better story; the writer chooses the first account, and Pi remarks: "so it goes with God".
Life of Pi makes an argument for the existence of God on the basis of Humanity's place within the universe. Pi wants to be part of a bigger story because believing in a higher power, benevolent or otherwise, gives him significance. Pi never settles on the exact name or nature of God, the point being that whatever the deity is called, Pi has an innate desire to know God and shared in his great plan and story for Humanity. Put simply, he chooses to believe that he has a purpose, even if he cannot name or entirely discern it, over believing that his life and all existence are of no consequence whatsoever.
As attractive as this may seem, Life of Pi doesn't develop its spiritual arguments to any kind of level needed to be convincing. The theology of the film is underdeveloped, promising to make us believe in God but never delivering the clinching arguments needed to cement our faith, or that or Pi. From a more narrative point of view, the arguments about religion and spirituality are ignored or buried for too much of the running time, until it can feel like it was tacked on at the end to manipulate us.
As an attempt to concretely prove the existence of God (ignoring the problems of such a phase), Life of Pi makes a good attempt but ultimately comes up short. Taken as anything more than a good story told well, it starts to unravel pretty quickly. But as a piece of narrative filmmaking and visual storytelling, it more than redeems itself through a series of great performances and splendid direction which truly takes us into a different world. In short, it is a feast for the senses, even though your head doesn't quite get its fair share.

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For a good perspective on possible implications of the film for Christians, I recommend this article from Nick Olson, Associate Editor of Christ and Popular Culture. For an alternative, more subtly Christian perspective, I recommend JesuOtaku's review of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which includes a detailed, insightful and non-preachy critique of existentialism. Both have philosophical or theological insight which far outstrips my own.

2 comments:

Great review Daniel - supremely eloquent as ever. I agree, visually stunning and fantastic CGI but the God narrative seemed to drop away pretty quickly. I'd be interested to see it in 2D (which I usually prefer) to compare the experience.

Thank you Kate. I was fretting about the last past but nice to know I wasn't being incoherent. I would see it again in 2D, hopefully the 2D would solve the backdrop problem.

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