Life of Pi

The once ‘unfilmable’ story of a boy and a tiger stranded together on a lifeboat contains flashes of 3D genius but ultimately proves too tame for Will Brooker

December 20, 2012


Life of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall

Released in the UK on 20 December

Ang Lee has adapted a novel that was considered impossible to film. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is a fable about storytelling and faith; a compilation of voices and styles, truths and myths, whose principal characters are a boy and a Bengal tiger, lost together at sea.

The novel opens with the framing device of the author himself discovering and introducing the history of Piscine (“Pi”) Molitor Patel, who as a young man survived for 2 days in a lifeboat following a shipwreck. It ends with a transcribed conversation between Pi and two bureaucrats - their dialogue in Japanese is rendered in a different font - and finally, with their official report on the shipwreck, which confirms everything we have just read while at the same time throwing its authenticity into question.

The film adaptation, obediently and lovingly faithful to the original novel, should, therefore, feel like a puzzle-box, a complex text that opens in various intriguing and contradictory ways, and defies a simple sense of closure. Instead, Pi’s life of exotic adventure is gift-wrapped neatly and presented to us as a pretty Christmas present. Or rather, more damningly, the tales of an Indian man, his family and his faith are presented to a white narrator who is told “it’s your story now”, before his report is reframed for us, the mainstream audience.

Rafe Spall’s character is designated simply “The Writer”, as a naturalised figure of white authorship - tellingly, he was recast when Tobey Maguire, the original actor considered for the role, was deemed too recognisable, insufficiently anonymous and generic. Spall’s responsibility here is simply to blandly nod, smile and mildly question, drawing out the story from Piscine Molitor Patel, as if Patel were not a convincing or endearing enough narrator to tell the tale himself. At one particularly awkward and ill-advised point, Spall’s character even ventriloquises the voice of Patel’s uncle Mamaji, adopting (or attempting) an Indian accent.

These framing devices tend to flatten the story rather than giving it depth. Flashbacks are signalled by dissolves that retain Pi as narrator in the foreground, as a talking head, while the background shifts; the effect is like scenery moving in a stage play, or the captions of an educational comic book. When an element of the story needs further exposition, Lee brings us back to the present day, and has Patel and “The Writer” explain the past through trite exchanges, until their discussion prompts another flashback.

Lee uses 3D technology for the first time in this film, as a deliberate artistic choice rather than a commercial decision or a nod to visual fashion. Its purpose should be both to immerse and to challenge, to draw us into a wide world of wonders while also urging us to question whether we can trust our senses. Ironically, it is during the film’s earlier sequences, before the shipwreck, that Lee comes closest to showing us something genuinely new. The opening shots simply tour the family zoo at Pondicherry, enveloping us in the natural environment - rain on paving stones, the erratic strut of a lizard, the dash of a deer, a glimpse of a tiger’s slow prowl - and seem to mark a maturation in 3D cinema, where the director aims for depth and detail, rather than showy spectacle.

Two subsequent sequences also push the boundaries of 3D, in different but intriguing ways. When Mamaji dives into a French swimming pool and the camera follows his underwater plunge not across, but out of the screen, we seem to experience a genuinely new axis in the cinematic image, an expansion of the previously flat plane into a new physical space. A brief moment of fantasy, soon afterwards, offers further fascinating possibilities: Pi announces “the gods were my superheroes”, and now it is our turn to dive and plunge, as the camera takes us into the open mouth of a comic-book Krishna, and into an animated universe that combines Hindu symbolism with American Pop Art.

Ironic, then, that the scenes on the open sea are far less gripping and enchanting, and that the sense of space and solitude that leads Pi to question his faith, challenge his gods and befriend a Bengal tiger is never fully conveyed by Lee’s cinematography. The camera either stays closely tethered to Pi’s lifeboat to capture his interactions with the tiger, or pulls back into wide, aerial shots that show the boat in its broader context. But the former simply remind us that these scenes were filmed in a wave tank, and the latter, reaching for spectacle, try too hard and look like what they are: flashy CGI rather than real-world wonders.

The film critic André Bazin was prompted by his own Catholic faith to insist that cinema had a duty to record reality without interference and tricks. If we respect and celebrate our environment as God’s creation, he believed, we should be content simply to preserve it accurately rather than invent, tinker and try to improve upon it. Bazin’s views may now seem old-fashioned but one wonders why Lee, in a film so informed by and structured around faith, seemed to lack trust in the beauty of the natural world, and instead sought to create so much of it through computer effects. The glimpse of a humpbacked whale at a distance is thrilling enough; there is no need to construct a virtual model and have it swim directly under Pi’s raft, cresting in perfect, implausible choreography and trailing a luminous aura. Every sunset over the sea is shot with a delicate lens flare, but it serves to remind us that there was, in all likelihood, no sunset, no sea, no camera, no light and no lens involved in the making of these images.

It could be countered that these scenes were never intended to feel “realistic”; that the too smooth movement of the CGI animals is meant to trigger a sense of falseness and simulation, and that we are being prompted to distrust Pi’s story even as we experience it. In these terms, the film succeeds. Much of Pi’s journey feels stylised and constructed, so the point is made; but in practice, it is an unsatisfying experience to sit through, as the framing narrative has assured us of Pi’s survival and robbed the narrative of suspense. We are effectively drifting, with Pi and his tiger, for an hour or more of screen time, with the dialogue inevitably reduced to grunts, gasps and roars; we know he will be rescued, and in the meantime we can only wait and watch. On this level at least, Life of Pi is “realistic”, conveying the tedium of a voyage without variation or conversation. Like his mathematical namesake, Pi is a constant, and his story goes on for a long time.

Life of Pi is a safe film that ultimately comforts rather than questions: a pretty confection rather than a complex provocation. It contains moments that may prove important steps towards a mature form of 3D cinema, but they rely on a director trusting the beauty and fascination of the real world and its animals (rather than creating and exaggerating them) or, alternatively, abandoning reality entirely and embracing a fully animated 3D world, a comic book come to startling, psychedelic life. Yet most of Life of Pi falls between these two stools and, for all its seafaring adventure, feels surprisingly pedestrian.

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