Monday, 21 January 2013

Life of Pi

Academy Award Nominations: 11

·         Best Picture
·         Best Director (Ang Lee)
·         Best Adapted Screenplay (David Magee)
·         Best Cinematography (Claudio Miranda)
·         Best Film Editing (Tim Squyres)
·         Best Original Score (Mychael Danna)
·         Best Original Song (Pi’s Lullaby)
·         Best Production Design
·         Best Sound Editing
·         Best Sound Mixing
·         Best Visual Effects

Piscine Molitor Patel, Pi for short, is a man who has led an extraordinary life and has a story to tell “that will make you believe in God”. As a young man, he keeps an open mind regarding faith and belief, subscribing to a number of different beliefs in order to love God as strongly as he can. When revolution begins to emerge in India, Pi’s father decides to move the family to Canada and sell their zoo’s animals to American zoos. However, when they all begin their journey on a Japanese freighter, Mother Nature has different plans for Pi, as the atrocious weather sinks the ship, and Pi is left to fight for survival in a lifeboat containing an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker…

For many years, Life of Pi was considered unfilmable. The book was phenomenally popular, a worldwide success, yet making a motion picture seemed to be impossible. The entire concept of the book makes it an unappealing prospect for any potential writer or director. Step up, Ang Lee. A renowned director with a few blemishes on his record; you can talk of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility all you like, but no-one will ever let him forget his ‘unique’ take on comic book films with Hulk. However, fantastic visuals are Lee’s signature, and if anyone could possibly step up to the challenge of creating a film based around a single location and animals, it would be him. His solution? Create the world’s largest wave pool, and create the single best looking CGI tiger the world’s ever seen. Did he pull it off? Amazingly, yes, but not with a few shortcomings.

I won’t beat around the bush. Life of Pi is visually stunning. I've said it quite a few times now, but I've yet to see anything like this. The CGI is incredible, the film is beautifully shot and the visual set-pieces are incredible. It also has the best, and dare I say most appropriate, use of 3D I've seen since the technology’s relaunch. It’s clear the film has a vast network of visual artists to thank for its successes, but you have to think that Ang Lee was the man behind the madness and deserves huge plaudits for having the imagination and fortitude to be able to bring something like this to the screen and to do so on such a grandiose scale is incredible. It’s a 2 hour film in which, in all honesty, not a whole lot happens, but it doesn't feel that way while you’re watching. While you’re sat looking at the screen, it feels like there’s always some kind of stimulus, whether it’s plot advancement or epic visuals. Part of that is owed to who you see on screen.

Suraj Sharma is amazing as 16 year old Pi, stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger. He carries the burden of his character’s emotional weight with aplomb and performs spectacularly given he was acting alone with only the faintest idea of a Bengal tiger in front of his eyes, and only descriptions of flying fish and whales to act his reactions to. He’s engaging, and delivers a powerful, emotive performance. Aside from that, it’s hard to say who else put in a stellar performance because of the lack of screen time anyone other than Pi and the animated tiger. I guess you could say the tiger performed well, but… Maybe not.

When you take away the stunning visuals and performances, however, you’re left with a basic story of survival, both on a grander scale as Pi finds himself cast adrift after a shipwreck and on a smaller scale as he copes with living in a confined space with a wild animal. Essentially, it’s the same problem 127 Hours faced, but I'm of the opinion that Life of Pi doesn't do it as well. Because 127 Hours took place over a shorter space of time, and because of how realistic certain scenes were, it felt like a document that was surprisingly relatable. Life of Pi gives you the feeling of being stranded at sea, with the added bit of tiger, which pulls you away from becoming truly involved with the story. You can find better, more dedicated survival stories in worse films. I understand, though, that the film is more about the relationship between the boy and his tiger, but that’s drawn out and is repeated until it suddenly turns, there doesn't seem to be an in-between stage in their relationship like there would be between two humans. There’s a good 90 minute film in this 2 hours. This book was considered unfilmable for a reason, and Ang Lee barely gets away with it, but it’s slim. That and a minor quibble about differentiating aspect ratios in certain scenes and the spoon-fed ending are what ultimately let the film down somewhat.

However, that’s what worries me. I see Life of Pi as being like the Avatar of this year’s Best Picture nominees: All style, little substance. This film does hold up better than Avatar though. The plot is thicker and more emotionally involving, even if very little really happens in the 2 hours. The plus side of it being too long is that you have more time to become attached to Pi and Richard Parker, which can only benefit the film. That, added with extraordinary visuals (in particular, one scene where the water is as clear as air) makes this a surprisingly entertaining watch, as it carries the pretence of action despite nothing happening, something you don’t realise until you think about it later on as I'm doing now. If I had written this straight after I saw it, it maybe would have scored higher, but that wouldn't have been fair. On reflection, despite nothing happening, plenty happened. The unfilmable is made filmable, but it’s fighting a wave of extremely strong contenders this year.

Rating: ****

Life of Pi was released on 20th December 2012 and is still being shown in cinemas.