Ang Lee is a director drawn to projects because of their narrative and their potential beauty. I can’t think of a film he has made that was dull to look at or uninteresting. Even “Brokeback Mountain” is beautiful to watch, something that could potentially detract from the overall narrative. But in Lee’s hands, he brings both together in harmonious symphony. Now, with his latest film, an adaptation of the popular bestseller “The Life of Pi”, he adds 3-D to the mix.
I know it seems like every other film is released in 3-D now. After the success of “Avatar”, studios are anxious to collect the extra $3 per ticket so even films that were not shot in 3-D are being retrofitted and released (or re-released) in 3-D. I have yet to see one of these ‘retrofitted’ films that truly use the magic of 3-D to enhance the viewing experience. Because they don’t work, these unsuccessful films seem like a desperate money grab and only serve to leave a bad taste in the mouth.
And because they are so eager for that extra $3, they make a lot of films in 3-D. For a while, every one of these films was deemed a huge success, but now the novelty has worn off and there have been a few 3-D flops, leading some chains to devote one theater per location to both 2-D and 3-D presentations of the same film, alternating the formats. Not a good development. There are still major blockbusters, the tentpoles the studios want and need to earn a billion dollars to prop up the rest of their releases. So every superhero film, pretty much all animation, most action and horror films, even a few comedies and dramas reach 3-D screens. Comedies and dramas? Why, so we can see the requisite scene of a character vomiting in 3-D? It isn’t necessary for a lot of these films to be in 3-D. It simply doesn’t add anything to the experience.
Of course, there have been exceptions. “Life of Pi” is such an exception. Lee uses 3-D to add another visual layer, another texture to this almost fable-like film. He integrates the technique into the fabric of the story, making it a character. It is a pretty remarkable achievement.
He also uses 3-D as an effective technique when composing the shots. As Pi relates the story of his uncle, a well-known swimmer, we watch as he enters a pristine public pool in France. A woman wearing a stylish sun hat sits in the foreground before Lee pulls the camera back to reveal the amazingly beautiful pool. Because of the time period, the storytelling nature and the art deco look of the public facility, we instantly become transported into the story.
Early in the film, the adult Pi is telling his story to a writer (presumably Yann Martel, the writer of the book) and the scene dissolves to a shot of Pi’s uncle swimming through a pool. The actor playing the adult Pi remains in the frame as the other character swims across the field of vision before we dissolve to the shot of the swimmer. I’m probably not doing this scene justice with my description, but the way Lee composes the shots, and uses 3-D to transition between them, really enhances the viewing experience and helps to build the tall-tale nature of the story.
My only disappointment with the film is that Lee and his screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”, “Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”) didn’t take a little more license with the book. Generally, I find just the opposite in a book-to-film adaptation. Lee clearly respects Martel’s original book (he has a reputation as a Writer’s Director, adapting their work very methodically and carefully) and slavishly tries to adapt the entire tale to the screen for us to watch. Unfortunately, because Lee is so intent on delivering the whole book, he mars his overall film just slightly. In the book, Pi tells his story to a writer, beginning the narrative and popping back into the story whenever the writer needs some clarification. Lee has two actors playing Pi and the writer (Irfan Khan and Rafe Spall, respectively). The film opens in Pi’s apartment in Montreal as he is preparing a vegetarian lunch for his guest. He starts telling his story and we watch as he cuts vegetables and prepares the meal. Later, when we revisit them, they have gone on a walk and spend some time in a park, watching the river, as Pi continues the story. Later, they return to his apartment as Pi finishes the story. We spend far too much time watching two people talk before the visual fades to images of what they are talking about. It just isn’t necessary to see soooo much of this. These moments serve to draw us out of the narrative and visual, both of which Lee has done such a splendid job of creating. Why would we want to spend any time sitting in a non-descript apartment in Montreal watching two men discuss what we could be living through with the characters? In a book, this type of narrative device works better; as one of the characters is telling their story, you begin to imagine the visuals they are describing. It is also a much more seamless experience. But when you are watching a film, you want to see these descriptions played out. It is a little dull watching these two men sitting and talking, for so much of the film. When Lee tells the story in images, it is a truly memorable experience. When he spends so much time with the actors telling a story, it is less interesting.
The visual part of the story is simply mesmerizing. Once Pi and his family board the freighter with all of their animals, you know what will happen. Pi will eventually end up on a lifeboat with a tiger the family has named Richard Parker. While the story may be simplistic, Lee uses the visual quality of the setting to bring an almost ethereal quality to the film.
As the two survivors battle each other, the elements and some truly spectacular unexpected elements, a story evolves and draws you into this unique universe.
In the hands of a less accomplished director, spending a significant amount of film time with two characters, only one of which speaks English, could be problematic. First of all, the one actor has a lot of time on his hands, and the focus is on him. Just the slightest misstep and his portrayal falls apart. It is difficult to hold the attention of the audience for that long, but Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, does a really good job. He deals with his situation in a natural way, never giving up hope, always pushing forward, trying to survive. Of course, this also seems natural because of all of the history we have already witnessed for his character (for instance, Pi’s intense interest in religion), but he does a very good job of making the character seem natural and real. Too often when an actor has too much time on their own, they start to act overly theatrical, as though they are on stage giving a soliloquy. This isn’t a far stretch; stage monologues are very similar and most actors have probably performed at least a few. But a monologue in a film is more problematic and the equivalent of two characters talking about an event, rather than showing it. In “Pi”, it is necessary to see these moments, because they give us insight into the character. And Sharma steers clear of histrionics, unless they are necessary to show us his frustration.
The CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in “Pi” is a pretty remarkable achievement. On the one hand, CGI is used to create some of the animals and some of their interactions. The best compliment I can give is that it is difficult to tell when real animals are used and when the CGI takes over. Real animals were used at some point (a Tiger trainer is listed in the credits), but it is difficult to tell when the CGI begins. Richard Parker shares the most interactions with Pi and he becomes a character in the film; a huge, fearsome beast with feelings, needs and goals. You almost get to the point that you begin to understand what his roars mean.
The CGI is also used to create some of the most beautiful tableaus you may have ever seen in a film. At one point, Pi and the tiger are sitting in the lifeboat in a completely lifeless sea; their reflection cast on the still water makes it look like we are looking in a mirror. The sky is filled with orange, yellow, red, all of which are also reflected. Of course, the water is not always so serene and the CGI helps to bring the fearsome storms and strange sea creatures to life in an almost brilliant way.
Because most of the film is inhabited by two characters, in a limited space, the 3-D helps this space become more interesting and also gives us a better feeling of what this space is like, allowing us to get a feeling of what Pi and Richard Parker are going through. It also enhances the visual beauty of the film, making us feel as though we are in a second lifeboat watching the two interact.
Lee has fashioned a beautiful, fable-like film advancing the use of two technologies to bring an otherwise unfilmable story to life.