Life Of Pi (2012)
It was with a certain sense of growling trepidation that I approached Ang Lee’s spectacular new 3D literary adaption Life Of Pi. Despite prowling through many critics ‘Best-Of’ lists for 2012 the trailer and production stories I’d consumed around the film activated the warning klaxons of my sentimentality detectors, whilst I can enjoy my heartstrings being manipulated in certain genres and through certain techniques the prospect of another pastel blasted contrived struggle such as Slumdog Millionaire really didn’t float my boat. Yann Martel’s novel was an award wining smash hit throughout Europe and North America following its publication back in 2001 and here’s a confession of my prejudices, I always partitioned the book (having not read it I’m ashamed to say) in with literature of the life-affirming, mawkishly nonsensical first-world problems sort that is pushed through daytime lifestyle shows and sub-literate work colleagues, the sort whom frequently take their reading cues from knuckle dragging celebrities, (similar to the vomit inducing likes of Eat Pray Love), an admittedly snobbish and unfair perception which was however reinforced by the soaring chimes of that Coldplay scored trailer which was drenched in a glittering tsunami of the saccharine and sickly. Whilst some of these faults are clearly evident in the picture it wasn’t nearly as enfeebled as I expected and I’d verge on the line of stating that I actually enjoyed this film, like the yin/yang diptych this is a film with towering strengths and fundamental flaws operating in near perfect symmetry.
Life of Pi is framed through a pair of faintly clumsy context setting bookends, as in the current day Pi (Irrfan Khan) an Indian expatriate whom has settled in Toronto enjoys a meal and conversation with an unnamed aspiring writer (Rafe Spall) whom has been advised by a mutual acquaintance that Pi has an incredible tale to tell. Through voiceover laced flashback Pi takes us through his earlier life and childhood in the French colony town of Pondicherry in Southern India, an Eden like realm where he grew up amongst the grounds of the town Zoo managed by his family, an idyllic adolescence amongst the fantastic flora and fauna and beasts of the wild. Hints of the fantastical creep in with Pi’s early school recollections, his embrace of a miasma of religious thought and beliefs – this rather confused young man attends church, mosque and extols the Buddhist and Hindu manifestos – and once a throughly perfunctory love affair with an instantly forgettable partner is traversed the film gains some steam when it powers into its narrative proper. With Pi transformed into a young man played by debutante Suraj Sharmer a nautical disaster strikes the ship transferring him, his family and their (dare I say it) menagerie of beasts when emigrating to Canada across the Pacific Ocean, Pi finding himself stranded on a tiny emergency craft with a ferocious bengal tiger with the rather odd name of Richard Parker due to some obscure administrative error. Trapped in desperate battle for survival in the aquatic deserts Pi has only his faith, luck and intuition protecting him from being his furry companions last supper.
This film is lightly drizzled with a warm coating of magical realism, an affectation that moves to saturation point in the films closing humps and swirls, it’s a strange blend of spiritual champion and survivalist thriller, a What Dreams May Come marooned with Castaway only this time Wilson is rather more ravenous. Visually the film is a striking affair with some of the best deployment of 3D yet seen, when used appropriately as a cinematic tool alongside the other defining instruments of cinema storytelling, (sound, score, composition, colour, lighting to name but a few) it can really pull you into the world beyond the screen, in Life Of Pi the seamless CGI is coupled with a pastel hued planar alignments of shapes, forms and colours which would have Jodorowsky squawking in psychophrenic delight .The recreation of the ferocious Richard Parker is simply astonishing and is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, it has a real sense of weight and threat, one assumes a state of the art combination of CGI wizardry and live action composites was mated to fantastical effect, quite frankly I don’t wish to know as then one of the films most powerful spells would be broken. The wider optometric hypnosis of the film springs from how these intertwined elements of live action and animation are becoming increasingly blurred, Life Of Pi is essentially a hyper-real cartoon with only the human face and body of the titular hero yielding a physical certainty once the central portion of the film is launched, as everything else is so hyper lacquered that the ‘real’ elements squatting in the unreal environment become subsumed by osmosis - it’s quite the digital cruise.
Ang Lee is certainly charting one of the most remarkably diverse bodies of work today, this magical chorus joining the like of his period dramas, martial art flicks, revisionist westerns, gay romances and superhero movies in his idiosyncratic oeuvre, although I much prefer the genuine emotions resonating through most of those movies Life Of Pi has a real sense of cinematic wonder and power, despite its metaphysical confusion and diffusion. Churning throughout the film (and one assumes the novel) are themes of survival and endurance, of the comforting power of imagination and unwavering faith, it’s a shame then that these ideals are obliquely hosted with utterances and proclamations that would be best confined to those hideous ‘inspirational’ Facebook status update postings that may haunt your feed, with their hollow platitudes and inconsequential assertions entirely divorced from any potential insight. I also had a problem with any emotional investment in Pi’s fate, a problem foreshadowed by the bookend structure proving that we know he’s gonna make it, and anyone that avaricious of faith from all sectors of the spectrum is either idiotically indecisive or seems destined to become a super concentrated bigot in my book. The films spiritual assertions are undefined and vague enough for the mumbo-jumbo to be embraced and absorbed by any viewer along the acolyte to atheist spectrum, yet alongside the visual achievements the films tangible trump card is its metaphoric reveal which again I assume leaps from the novel, this simple revelation made me wish to see the film again and test its unexpected hypothesis, this revelation instantly bumping the picture from a 3 to a 3.5 star rating experience for me. Confused, vaguely patronising but undeniably thought-provoking Life of Pi is a visual tour-de-force and I’m starting the petition for the Werner Herzog remake, then we’ll really see how man and beast co-exist in a piously uncertain universe;