VOD film review: Life of Pi
Ivan Radford | On 08, Nov 2013Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Watch Life of Pi online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
A lot of people believe that Life of Pi is a five-star masterpiece, one of the best films of 2012, that it proved 3D is the future of film. We’re going to tell you why.
Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning book was already a literary giant, feted by critics and punters alike. The tale of a boy, Pi, who ends up shipwrecked with nowt but a rowing boat and a tiger for company, it’s presented as an anecdote by an adult narrator, who promises his listener (Spall) the story will convince him to believe in God. Can the novel’s structure be replicated on screen?
In short, yes. Ang Lee’s adaptation is faithful to the letter. That’s part of the problem. A story about storytelling, told by a storyteller, David Magee’s script is soon adrift in a sea of voiceover.
Fortunately, once stranded, that leaves us with Suraj Sharma, whose debut performance is nothing short of magnetic. Whether he’s hallucinating, trying to catch food or merely gazing at luminous fish, Sharma’s natural openness makes for a likeable lone survivor.
But his 227 days never quite have the emotional clout of, say, James Franco’s 127 Hours. Here, the focus is on the story itself and what it represents. If this meta-narrative takes you out of the situation, though, full credit to Ang Lee, who pulls you right back in.
The Hulk director’s use of CGI is superb, painting a vivid, fantastical landscape without falling into the syrupy trap of other VFX-heavy outings (hello to The Lovely Bones). The tiger (Richard Parker) may have the same name as Spider-Man’s dad, but the creature feels immediately real and dangerous, heightening the claustrophobia of Pi’s tiny craft, while the cinematography emphasises the space between the two.
At times, the result is staggering, creating a beautiful sense of scale to match the colour of the hyper-natural world; along with the recent Beasts of the Southern Wild, it’s proof that magic realism works on film as well as it does on the page. At other times, changing aspect ratios and novelty flying fish feel like gimmicks for the sake of it. Still, whether you buy into the effects or not (on a TV screen at home, the focus on 3D novelty should be diminished), the framework is the main source of distraction.
The opening, a rambling discussion of Pi’s love of religion – all of them – is a wonderfully brave way to start. But the final 20 minutes go all Madagascar 4 as Lee struggles with a reveal that sparks a flashback inside a flashback, leaving us relying upon the voiceover rather than the visuals to understand what’s going on.
The ending makes a moving, provocative point, particularly for audience members with a modicum of spiritual belief, but do we need so many storytellers to tell one boy’s story?
Christopher Hampton’s screenplay for Atonement translated a similarly literary device to the screen without a trace of doubt. Ang Lee’s ode to the human nature of philosophy doesn’t quite pull off that leap of faith. Instead, its structure feels more like a well-formed lecture than a cinematic masterpiece: it tells you what it’s going to tell you, then it tells you, then it tells you what it told you.
Faced with the less exciting truth, though, would you rather believe that Life of Pi is a flawed adaptation of a popular novel, or one of the best films of 2012 that proved 3D is the future of cinema? Many people prefer the latter.