WARNING: SPOILERS. You should have seen this film by now but if you haven’t, go see it, NOW.
1. LIFE OF PI (2012)
It may be a very recent movie, but Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is truly a landmark in filmmaking. Life of Pi is a visually dazzling experience with masterful storytelling and great emotional depth. The film is based off of the best-seller novel of the same name and was deemed by many critics and audience members as the “unfilmable book”. It was given to many directors ranging from M. Night Shyamalan (glad that didn’t happen) to Alfonso Cuarón. Audience members interested in the film started to lose hope, until Ang Lee got to direct. Lee triumphed against all of the difficulties and provided us with a film experience like no other.
The story is mostly revolved around our central protagonist Pi (Suraj Sharma). His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India and his mother works as a gardener there. His family decides to move to Canada from India due to financial reasons. They travel by boat bringing all of the zoo animals with them. But a huge storm sinks the entire ship only leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In the film, we see the story unfold through an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) retelling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall).
The main heart of the film is Pi’s survival at sea and the amazing things he sees along the way but many of the crucial scenes happen early on in the film before the major catastrophe. We learn that his full name Piscine Molitor Patel is named after an elegant French swimming pool but people say as if it was “pissing”. He proves himself as “Pi” by remembering a gazillion digits of Pi and showing it to the rest of the school. We learn that his father taught him not to sympathize with animals which develops his struggle to initially sympathize with Richard Parker. We learn that he is exposed to the world’s three largest religions and believes in all them. This all sets up the spiritual aspect of the film. Many audience members have complained that the film doesn’t get to the disaster fast enough but without the setup of Pi’s character, you wouldn’t really care as much about him. The opening also sets the tone for the film. The film is actually quite light-hearted even though there are depressing moments. Lee knows to control the tone by never getting too dark. The film’s screenwriter, David Magee, does a great job at making the novel’s character introduction of Pi more concise in the film (yes, I have read the book). The story of Life of Pi is just so fascinating and original.
One of the strongest aspects of Life of Pi is the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. In fact, it’s the main part of the film. It could have been handled incorrectly and made too simple. Pi and Richard Parker do not immediately become friends. As their relationship grows, they begin to play games of defending their own space. One thing they don’t realize is their need for each other. They give each other purpose, even if that purpose is to cope with each other’s presence. It is surprising that the film is rated PG because the emotional ups and downs between Pi and Richard Parker are far more sophisticated than in a Disney film. This is why the MPAA rating system is stupid. They rate films based on what they can see but not what is the purpose and effect of what they saw, but I digress.
What everybody probably notices about Life of Pi is how beautiful it is. CGI (computer-generated imagery) has been overused in films ever since the initial release of Jurassic Park in 1993. If Life of Pi was placed in the wrong hands (for example, Michael Bay), it could have become a CGI shitfest. But Ang Lee is a very poetic and experienced director, so instead of using CGI to get kids into the theater, he actually uses it to tell the story. All of the animals in the film are created through CGI but they don’t look anything like CGI. I went into the film knowing nothing about the production and I thought they used a real tiger. That’s how amazing the visual effects are. The ocean landscape is also breathtaking. The one amazing scene that stands out to me is when the sky is full of stars and the ocean is filled with glowing jellyfish. The entire shot looks like one piece with the lifeboat in the center. Its scenes like this that make Life of Pi a dazzling visual experience. Saying the 3D in this film is great is an understatement. 3D has never been used this well before and still hasn’t surpassed. The depth-of-field created by the 3D makes you feel like you really are at sea with Pi. The only other film that has come close is Gravity, but Life of Pi adds more usage and purpose to the 3D. I feel like 3D was simply invented for this film.
The cinematography by Claudio Miranda is another visually stunning aspect of the film. The composition of each scene is incredible. You can see Pi and Richard Parker’s relationship build through each shot as the film progresses. Initially, Pi and Richard Parker are basically always in two different shots, representing the disconnection between the two. Then, the two start to appear in the same shot but on two different sides of the screen, left and right or foreground and background. Towards the end of the second act, they are almost always in the same shot but only for a short period of time (I won’t spoil what happens in the final act). Many times, the camera defines the vast and lonely feeling of the sea. It feels Ozymandias-esque but instead of sand, there is water. There is one specific shot that I found extremely graceful and expressive. Pi writes a note giving details of his situation, puts the note into a can and throws it out to the sea in an attempt to get someone’s attention and send help. The camera shows the scene first with the can in the foreground but then views the scene from above. We then see that the can has not gone all that far, giving a sense of Pi’s desperation and ultimate powerlessness in the large sea. The can creates tiny ripples in the water that also represents the meagerness and futility in Pi’s efforts at saving himself. Life of Pi contains many scenes of miraculous cinematography that are great examples of visual storytelling.
The performances in the film are all very good but the entire film rests on the shoulders of young actor Suraj Sharma. Ang Lee went through 3000 auditions to find the correct Pi. His choice was perfect. Nowadays, films have huge ensemble casts where actors must rely on each other to do well. Sharma has the difficult job of keeping a movie interesting by himself and a CGI tiger, and he completely kills it. He does a great job of making Pi a likable but lost character as we follow along on his spiritual journey. His life experience has certainly made him an interesting character.
The musical score by Mychael Danna captures the great essence of India’s music and culture, giving the film a strong atmosphere. The score then becomes very quiet and slow when Pi is alone in the sea. It creates a very powerful sense of loneliness. The musical score also gets very emotional but still very gentle during scenes of storms. Nothing is made over-emphasized or over-dramatic by the score which is rare to come upon nowadays. Every note is in its proper place and evoking the right amount of emotional juice when it plays.
Of course, undermining all of this amazing effort of visuals and storytelling is Ang Lee. All of Ang Lee’s films are very poetic and have a huge emphasis on emotional and spiritual depth. Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain have provided audiences around the world with the same powerful and soul-shattering experience, I think Life of Pi is Ang Lee’s best attempt at this. Life of Pi has more time to invest in emotion than the action-driven Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and more imagination to keep people in awe than Brokeback Mountain. Spirituality has an even larger role in Life of Pi than any other of Lee’s films. Just taking on the project is a huge leap of faith for Lee. Directors usually don’t like to have animals, children and water in their films. Lee had them all. Also, he tells the rest of the crew to have the same level of faith. Suraj Sharma had to pretend there was a tiger with him. This had to be believable or else the film would fall apart. It worked in the film not only because of Sharma’s excellent performance but also because of Lee’s direction. Lee told Sharma instead of trying to see the tiger, he should actually spiritually feel the tiger’s presence. Ang Lee, you are a genius.
Many people have pondered over the film’s ending for its ambiguity. Pi, in the end, poses two different stories of what happened. There is the more fantastical story involving the tiger and a more realistic version of the same story involving humans. As I left the theater after the film finished, I heard many people discussing which story is the correct one and mostly pointed to the middle of the film for evidence. They were looking in the wrong place. It is the beginning of the film where Lee provides us the facts. All we truly know is that there is a ship that sank and Pi survived. As mentioned earlier, a crucial part of the film is when Pi discovers Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and decides to believe in all three. But he also believes in science like his father. This provides the main point of the film. It doesn’t really matter which religion you decide to believe, or don’t. As long as you are happy and find meaning in your existence, then that is good enough. It doesn’t matter which story is the right one, it all really depends on what you think. This is where the film mainly differs from the novel. More spiritual people will probably choose the tiger story and more logical thinkers will more likely choose the human story. Really, there is no point taking sides and debating because that is the opposite of what the film intends.
Life of Pi has had a profound effect on my love for film. Before seeing the film in December 2012, I only viewed film as a simple form of entertainment. Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Dark Knight are films that provided the small roots for my love of film. Life of Pi nurtured that love for film until it was fully grown. I began to realize that there is person behind the camera who has thought out everything before shooting the film. I began to realize that film does not just have to be entertainment and that it could be art. Film appeals to me more as a form of art than literature because film combines visuals, storytelling and philosophical ideas all into one cohesive piece of art. Life of Pi is the exact definition of what film was intended for. After watching Life of Pi, I almost subconsciously went online and searched reviews for it. I began to dig deeper into the world of film criticism and the world of film in general. I looked for more artful movies rather than just summer blockbusters. Most importantly, the film helped me discover my passion for film. To that I say, amen.
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