Ang Lee | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA, Taiwan, UK, Canada & France / English, Tamil, French, Japanese, Hindi & Chinese | PG / PG
“Unfilmable” — now there’s an adjective you don’t hear tossed about so much these days. For a long time it seemed like it was all the rage to label novels “unfilmable”, but at this point too many ‘unfilmable’ novels have been filmed, and the wonders of CGI have put paid to anything ever again being unfilmable for practical or visual reasons. It may still be an apposite descriptor for works that feature very literary storytelling, though if you can render something like the subjective and unreliable narrator of Fight Club on screen — and in a movie that many regard as being superior to the novel, too — then there are few boundaries in that realm either. And someone even made On the Road, so just as soon as The Catcher in the Rye gets filmed we can probably put “unfilmable” to bed forever.
Yann Martel’s internationally-renowned Booker Prize-winner Life of Pi is one novel that used to have that adjective attached (of course it was — that would’ve been a pretty stupid introductory paragraph otherwise, wouldn’t it?) I’ve never read the novel, but I suspect it may’ve earnt the label for both of the above reasons, because it concerns, literally, the story of a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger, and, figuratively, the very nature of storytelling itself — not to mention the purpose of religion and the existence of God. Never has “from the director of Hulk” seemed less pertinent.
Said director — Ang Lee, of course — did win one of this film’s four Oscars. Match that with two of its others — namely, for cinematography and visual effects — and you get an inkling of one of the film’s most praised facets. Whatever one thinks of the film’s story and themes (and I’ll come to those), it looks incredible. This is the kind of film that demands the increased resolution and colour palette of HD; it may even demand the 3D it was shot in, because watching in 2D it felt clear that wasn’t its native format — not because of the old cliché of things being thrust in the viewers’ collective face (well, only once or twice), but because of almost-indefinable features of each shot’s crispness, its depth of field, even the compositions. It absolutely works in 2D, and it didn’t leave me longing for 3D in quite the same way as something like the swooping aerial sequences of How to Train Your Dragon, but, unlike with the majority of movies released in 3D, I did feel like I wasn’t seeing the director’s full vision.
Nonetheless, Claudio Miranda’s Oscar-winning cinematography proved controversial in some quarters. While the movie is indeed beautifully shot, swathes of it are also awash with CGI, so I think there’s some merit to the argument that it doesn’t count as photography. Conversely, I’d actually argue that the real-world bits look even more glorious than the digitally-rendered parts, on balance. Sure, you have the obvious spectacle of the psychedelic whale-jump, featured heavily in trailers and on the Blu-ray 3D cover, and the painterly skies and seas while in the lifeboat; but the early sequences in India, bursting with crisp, luscious colour in the zoo or at a nighttime light festival, are in some respects even more memorable.
To give with one hand and take with the other, however, I felt that the pair of aspect ratio shifts were utterly pointless and, worse, distracting. Firstly, I believe 2.35:1 was used for the flying fish scene to make the sequence feel more epic, and to allow the fish to jump further out of the screen. Well, in 2D the latter is lost entirely; and on TV (and possibly in the cinema, presuming the screen-space got thinner rather than wider), the movie suddenly feels constrained — the exact opposite effect to when films like The Dark Knight or Hunger Games 2 open out for their IMAX sequences, for instance. Later, the 4:3 “book cover” shot is just pure indulgence. There’s no reason not to just have empty sea to the left and right of frame, and the “it’s emulating the book cover!” reason/excuse doesn’t come close to passing muster simply because book covers aren’t 4:3. In both cases, then, what was intended to be striking or clever or innovative or in some way effective, I guess, comes across as pointless and distracting and pretentious.
And if we’re talking daft choices, don’t get me started on the meerkat-infested carnivorous island…! Maybe there’s some Deeper Meaning there — or, later, is the film deliberately lampshading the island’s total lack of meaning, when Pi tells the journalist that there doesn’t need to be meaning if it’s just what happened? Whatever — for me, it only served to make 110% sure we know (spoilers!) that Pi’s whole story is definitely BS. In that respect, the bizarre fancifulness was heavy-handed.
Ah, the story. To be honest, I liked it a little better a year later when it was called All is Lost; some people liked it better a decade earlier, when the tiger was a volleyball called Wilson. The striking imagery of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger makes one assume that’s what the film’s About, but it’s not really About that at all. If you’re expecting a pure adventure on a life-raft, the long preamble where Pi describes his early experiences of religion must seem utterly pointless, but it all feeds back in at the end when we come to the point of Pi’s — well, Martel’s — tale.
I’m going to discuss the end while avoiding direct spoilers, but, honestly, any foreknowledge of the film’s (possible) message(s) is liable to colour your perception; so if you’ve not seen it, it may be best to skip the next paragraph until later.
Reading around a little online, it seems that some people have interpreted the film’s message as being a defence of/justification for/persuasion towards religious faith, and hate it for that. This interests me, because I — coming, I suspect, from a similar perspective on religion — read it as a subtle condemnation of religious stories. Actually, not a condemnation, but a tacit acceptance of the fact that such stories are a nice fairytale, but not the truth. To put it another way, I took the message to be (more or less) that religion is an obvious fiction which people choose to believe because it’s a nicer story than the more plausible alternative, neither of which are provable. I think some focus on the point that the journalist hearing Pi’s story is told it will make him believe in God, and, at the end, the journalist seems to accept that it does. I don’t think that’s the film’s contention, though; I think the film is, in a way, explaining why people believe in God. Or maybe there are just no easy answers.
Seeking those answers, Rafe Spall is very good in what amounts to a tiny supporting role… but then, I have a fondness for him as an actor (his excellent, just-the-right-side-of-OTT turn as a gangster’s unhinged psychopathic son is the only real reason to watch The Shadow Line), so I may be biased. One must also single out Suraj Sharma, an unknown cast almost by accident when he accompanied his brother to the auditions, but who gives a good turn even when mostly performing opposite a CG tiger, a CG sea, CG fish, more CG…
I found Life of Pi to be a little bit of a mixed bag, on the whole, where moments of transcendent wonder-of-cinema beauty rub up against instances of thumb-twiddling; where insightful or emotional revelations rub shoulders with pretentious longueurs. There is much to admire, but there are also parts to endure. The balance of reception lies in its favour, but while some love it unequivocally, a fair number seem to despise it with near-equal fervour. Either way, it’s definitely a film worth watching, and in the best possible quality you can manage, too. It also made me want to read the book, which for a movie I wasn’t even sure how much I liked is certainly an unusual, but positive, accomplishment.
The UK TV premiere of Life of Pi is on Channel 4 (and 4HD) tonight at 9pm.