Life of Pi (2012), dir. Ang Lee
Fans of the 2001 best-selling book by Yann Martel about an Indian adolescent stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger should be very pleased with this picture, as it is just about as faithful a film adaptation could strive to be. Having read the book myself, I was quite pleased for the most part, but felt unduly underwhelmed when by all accounts I should have felt exhilarated. As faithful as this film is, given the logistics involved it is forced to approach the story in an entirely different manner from how the book does. Most of the story centers on only the two characters: the boy and the tiger. Naturally the tiger cannot communicate with the boy, so any dialogue is impossible. In the book this is easily compensated for with a rich narrative that draws the reader into the affected mind of the boy as an adult, who is telling the story. The movie utilizes this format as well, as the film’s prologue is densely narrated by the adult protagonist to an unnamed Canadian writer (same as in the book). It works quite well, and there is enough dialogue between the other human characters to pad it out. But once we get out to sea when it’s just the boy and the tiger, the narration, when one thinks it would be most needed, disappears almost entirely. Here’s where, in my mind, the film runs into trouble. Because rather than rely upon the narrative to carry the story, it relies upon visuals—heavily computer-generated visuals, which, goddammit, don’t impress me at all.
I should add that I did not see this movie in 3-D. After seeing it I read a few other reviews online, and began to wish I had, though I sincerely doubt it would have helped much. I’ve never been impressed by the 3-D format. But neither has Roger Ebert (whose review I read), and not only has he been unimpressed by 3-D, he’s been a staunch opposing voice to the medium; however, he was impressed by the film’s 3-D visuals—go figure. I still refuse to believe that sleekly done 3-D can effectively draw attention away from the sickening artificiality that CGI produces. God help me, it does nothing for me, and it has ruined countless movie-going experiences of mine for the past fifteen years or so. I’ve been thinking about writing an essay on the effect of computer-generated special effects on the movie industry, because it’s taken so much of the magic away from seeing special effects films. Unlike optical effects, which were only lavishly exploited for little over a decade, there is no mystery with CGI. The overall process is simple enough to understand—what you are seeing are computer-animated visuals, much the same as you would see in a video game. I don’t like watching ‘video game’ movies with humans superimposed into them. And as far as this technology has come, guess what—it still looks fake! The CGI tiger in Life in Pi (humorously named “Richard Parker”) represents some of the finer CGI I’ve seen, but never at one moment did I believe I was looking at a real tiger. And for that reason, it was impossible for me to share in the fear and apprehension that boy must have felt to have been stranded alone in the middle of the ocean with the beast.
This story (which is widely known, so I won’t bother summarizing it), in both the book and the film, is told in a fashion to where it should ostensibly be true—“a story to make one believe in God,” we are told. Aside from the part involving the carnivorous island, the story is quite feasible. In the book, given the highly emotional narrative account, it is even more convincing. Regrettably, with the film’s highly artificial visual presentation (as sleek as it may be), we are robbed of some of the doubt we are meant to feel toward the story’s alleged reality. But perhaps I am being too harsh. My little tirade on CGI aside, my review is still a favorable one. The director, Ang Lee has an excellent sense of flow, and the story unfolds very smoothly. Even without the narrative, the simple visual aspect in regard to what actions we see and how they are shown to us allow us to empathize with the character of the boy enough to feel his fear and sense of uncertainty. It is a pretty miraculous story, and a fun one besides. It’s obvious that the people behind this film have a profound admiration for the book, and it’s that affection which is most communicated.