Thursday, December 13, 2012

Life of Pi (2012) in 3D – Review

Review: Life of Pi is a phenomenally beautiful and fulfilling cinematic experience. The film is about Pi, a young Indian man and the son of a zookeeper. Pi’s family decides to uproot from India and move to Canada, and in the process they plan to sell all the animals in their zoo. They embark for North America with their animals aboard a Japanese freighter. However, shortly into the journey, the ship encounters a massive storm and begins to take on a catastrophic amount of water, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Miraculously, Pi survives this disaster, but finds himself cast away stranded on a lifeboat with the zoo’s ferocious Bengal tiger. As they both struggle to survive, they form an unlikely bond.

Life of Pi is shot in 3D – a medium that is nothing more than gimmick allowing studios and theatres to charge more for tickets adding little to  (if not completely detracting from) the movie-going experience. However, with this film, the use of 3D is seamless, un-abrasive and even beautiful. It is one of the few films (Avatar being maybe the only other movie in which this is the case) that 3D adds something and is well worth paying extra for. Director Ang Lee is able to fully integrate the technology into his aesthetic style for the film, taking advantage of what 3D offers when utilized correctly (and not merely as a lazy, poorly executed way to make money).

The film has the feel of a grand epic story (similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Lee structures the narrative to be more about the character of Pi than just his adventure, going into how he got his name, his faith and his first love – all of which happens before he ever gets on the ship. This gives the film a very long first act, but it contributes so much to the character and Lee’s presents it all with a magical elegance, as if the audience is about to be treated to something special. Thus, the build-up only makes it better. It also gives the film a needed mythical quality (like a tall-tale), allowing the audience to accept the grand scale and extraordinary events (again, much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Lee makes a potentially risky narrative choice with the way the narrative is structured. The film begins with Pi as an adult telling his story to a writer (and then cutting back to him throughout the story). By showing Pi as an adult, Lee has informed the audience right off that Pi survives his great adventure, and thereby seemingly lessens the tension and suspense, as the audience knows he is going to be fine in the end. However, having adult Pi as the storyteller adds an extra layer of emotion, both nostalgic and in his ability to reflect on what he lost. This gives the audience a much deeper connection to Pi.

The film is also about so much more than just the action, thus the perceived loss of tension and drama from Pi’s struggle to survive (as the audiences already knows that he does) is not really that important. Plus, Lee’s staging is completely on point for the shipwreck scenes and all of Pi’s intense moments on the lifeboat. These scenes are exciting, scary, and utterly engaging. Thus, knowing Pi survives does not really factor into the emotional reaction to what the audiences experiences during Pi’s adventure. It is a thrilling and visceral adventure for the audience.

As set up in the first act with the stories about how Pi came to be a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, Pi’s adventure is primarily a story about faith, surrender and acceptance – a spiritual journey. Lee presents the scenes of Pi isolated on the lifeboat with the Bengal tiger (Richard Parker) with almost an angelic splendor, and also completely perilous. The imagery is wondrous and exquisite. Films featuring an isolated character often delve into man’s relationship with god, and this is no different. Pi is perpetually on the brink of death, and yet fortuitous events prop him up and keep him going. His relationship with Richard Parker can also be viewed in a spiritual way. The tiger is a wild animal, seemingly void of feeling and a soul surviving purely on its instincts. He is an unimaginably frightening and dangerous to behold. And yet, Pi is able to form a bond with him, a bond that enables him to survive. Without Richard Parker Pi would have not have had the strength and will to survive (and without Pi, Richard Parker would not survive either).

Life of Pi is also an effects film in that it relies considerably on special effects. But, unlike many effects-heavy films, the plot does not serve the special effects they serve the narrative. Much like with Lee’s handling of 3D, his use of special effects is only to better tell the story (they are not there just to be there). The emotional impact that the film has on its audience does not stem from the visual effects, as impressive and seamless as they are (and they are phenomenally impressive – especially the animals). It is the character development and touching performances that resonate with the audience, and make this film something special.

Grand epics are increasingly common in Hollywood filmmaking, but few are as astonishingly beautiful and emotionally engrossing as Life of Pi. It is the masterwork of a great filmmaker.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Ang Lee has made almost every type of film (to varying degrees of success). Life of Pi is chiefly a brilliant spiritual character journey, with the action and visuals supporting the narrative. (While I do like Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain) it is his best film, and one that showcases his maturity and skill as a director.

Mychael Danna’s score has an Indian flavor to much of it (as one might expect), but it also sets the mood for this grand epic with moving pieces that seem to build up the sheer awe of the visuals, while still supporting the emotional tone dictated by the characters and narrative (here is the score in full). Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is magnificently striking and beautifully arresting. While the characters are the principal component of the narrative, the visuals play a large role in the overall experience as well. Miranda captures the audiences’ imagination with his dream-like photography, playing off the film’s grand scale and wondrous thematic elements. David Gropman’s production design is fantastic as well, flush with lavish colors. The look and mood of the ocean and sky feel almost like an additional character, as they contribute beauty, wonder and tension to the narrative.

The cast is mostly made up of actors with small roles in the film. Rafe Spall, Tabu, and Adil Hussain are all very good among these small roles. Irrfan Khan plays the adult version of Pi, telling the story to the writer. He is wonderful, especially in his final scenes in which his performance seems to give the film an additional emotional level. Suraj Sharma makes his film debut as Pi. He is great in the role, portraying the strength, innocence, and heart of Pi.

Summary & score: Life of Pi has all the best things about cinema – a great story, stunning visuals, and compelling characters. It is a cinema experience that all epics should endeavor to be. 9/10

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