LIFE OF PI – 3D B-
USA (127 mi) 2012 d: Ang Lee
Much like Cloud Atlas (2012), this is another example of Hollywood excess, as these guys love to throw their money around, this time somewhere in the neighborhood of $70 million dollars, which is considered a bargain for a hi-tech, special effects film. To give you an example of the unstable nature of the business, not the least of which is financial, initially the production team targeted director M. Night Shyamalan in 2003, who shares Indian roots with the film, but he chose another film, LADY IN THE WATER (2006), leading to the choice in 2005 of Alfonso Cuarón who also chose another project, CHILDREN OF MEN (2006), then later in 2005 the pick was Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who began writing and adapting the screenplay, and even started shooting in India before abandoning the project. So Ang Lee, hired shortly afterwards, is actually the 4th director chosen to make this film. In other major changes, Tobey Maguire was originally hired to play the reporter, but Ang Lee chose not to use a recognizable face and deleted all his scenes, reshooting with a different actor. Such is the nature of show business. The film is largely a child’s fantasy adventure tale written for the screen by David Magee, the screenwriter of FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), an overly dour look at J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan, this time adapting the 2001 Booker Prize-winning bestselling novel by Yann Martel, an interesting literary prize awarded for the best full-length work of fiction from the former British Commonwealth, in this case India. Shot in 3D, and while many are raving about its use here, including Roger Ebert Ang Lee: Of water and Pi - Roger Ebert - Chicago Sun-Times calling it “the best use of 3D I've ever seen,” there are really only a few scenes where the use is significant, with one being the opening credit sequence, which is a montage of various animals joyously frolicking in the lush foliage of an Indian zoo, which has a playful ease about it, and is certainly a nice way to introduce animals living in harmony with both people and the natural world around them. A good hour goes by after that where the 3D use is sporadic and not altogether significant.
Set in 3 different time periods, beginning in the present, Irrfan Khan as a middle-aged man named Pi relates a personal story to a visiting journalist, Rafe Spall, which becomes the novel the film is based upon, explaining not only where he got his name, but also how he came to have faith in God. Except for the finale, and other brief moments, the story is told entirely in flashback, one period at 12 and another at 16. The youngest addresses Pi’s family, as his father owns and operates a zoo, but more significantly explores his spiritual interest in pursuing Hinduism, Islam, and Catholicism, eventually becoming a Hindu Catholic, which may as well be part of the Bahai faith, as he tends to accept a universality of religions. While this spiritual initiation is supposed to come full circle by the end of the film, that’s not really how it plays out, as instead this is seen almost exclusively as a fantasy adventure story, where the religious affiliation is negated by the existentialist aspect of the journey. For those inclined to see proof of God in the storytelling, as Pi apparently does, this is certainly not forced upon the viewer, as the overall drama is adventure based. When the adventure is over, the story peters out. Pi’s family decides to move to Canada, bringing with them all the zoo animals which they intend to sell, but they are shipwrecked en route and Pi is separated from his family, the only eventual human survivor of the accident. Inexplicably, Pi escapes with a zebra, an oranguatang, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger on a rescue raft, but by the end of the journey, it’s only a young boy and a tiger that survive. Along the way, they encounter many adventures, most of which includes addressing the overriding fear of one another, as Pi literally has to construct an alternate life raft tied to the main raft that separates him from co-existing with a near starving carnivore. The mad and ferocious rush of the shipwrecking storm eventually subsides to a tranquil calm, where the monotony of living through days after days on end slows the pace to a crawl, and each to their separate corners, so to speak.
Some of the film’s most beautiful and transcendent moments occur during this peaceful interim, where the ocean turns translucent turquoise and the mind’e eye sees the entire cosmos reflected within, not only giant whales and exotic fish glowing in the dark, but also the faces of his family, the planets and the galaxy, where at least for one spectacular moment, 3D perfectly captures a poetic recreation of Buddhist enlightenment, a realization of nirvana. While this is a moment when starvation alters the perception of reality, blurring the realms of existence, these are easily the most abstractly unique and unforgettable images of the film. But mostly this is a Biblical Job endurance test for both human and animal alike, perhaps one and the same, where by the time the near-death experience envelops them, they are both reduced to skin and bones, the beast inside finally tamed, the savage fierceness of each literally sapped out of them, where all that’s left is praying for a miracle. Ang Lee has always been a visually complex filmmaker, known for having a unique, chameleon-like quality of artistic metamorphosis, as the diversity and range of his work is literally stunning, and while he may have been searching for a novel use of 3D as a new cinematic language (as they all claim), where the experience of the film is as transforming as the book, unfortunately, except for a few priceless moments, much of this experience is a bit of a slow slog, especially the over-emphasis on verbal narration that can grow endless, actually undermining any visual effect, growing most tedious when the overly frustrated and crazed character starts calling out God, acting defiantly as if he’s ready to die. While he may have been the sole human survivor, much of this is due to his reckless behavior at the time of the shipwreck, as he was already separated from the others by stupidly roaming the outer shipdecks in the middle of a storm, lucky he wasn’t blown away or washed overboard. Despite creating an impressive CGI tiger, the Hollywood glossed, computer generated, artificial look of the screen tends to monopolize the viewer experience after awhile, where the ocean bears no resemblance to an ocean, and where a lack of dramatic engagement defines this adventure story, as it’s the human element that never rises above the material, especially a weak finale that undercuts everything that happened before.