Film is a Visual Art – Respect That

Life of Pi – Ang Lee – 2012

★★★.5/★★★★

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When I was a young teen I received a copy of Blade Runner: The Final Cut from my dad. I had always been a fan of science fiction and I was told that this was often considered one of the greatest sci-fi films, alongside the likes of Star Wars, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  So I sat down and watched it, and two hours later I went to my dad and told him I hated it. At fourteen I just couldn’t understand what everyone was so up in arms about with this film. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Something about it had me and made me want to watch it again. Perhaps it was the societal pressure of the critical establishment or perhaps it was the visual elements that I already appreciated. Either way, I watched it a second time. I hated it then too. It wasn’t until my fifth viewing that I really ‘got’ Blade Runner. The reason I bring this up is that even after multiple viewings, there was more to get out of Blade Runner. After one viewing of Life of Pi, I feel as though I completely understood everything it wanted to tell me, and I have no interest in seeing it again.

Directed by Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain), Life of Pi chronicles the experience of Piscine Moritol “Pi” Patel after being shipwrecked. The catch: on the lifeboat with him is Bengal Tiger. The two of them experience an astonishing 227 days on that lifeboat with Pi learning much about him in living with a tiger that would be just as happy to eat him and be done with it. The film is beautifully shot, there’s no two ways about that. Every scene is visually brilliant and it’s no cliché to say that the images really jump off the screen. Lee has always had a great visual eye and it shows here. He takes what could have been a very boring story (three quarters of the story takes place on a boat) and makes every scene feel fresh.

The performances are good. Suraj Sharma plays Pi with a naiveté that we are used to from new actors. He has a lot of talent, even if his performance gets somewhat tired after an hour alone on a boat. The key to his success is in the frame story. Irrfan Khan plays the adult Pi with a lot of controlled emotion and subtlety that counteracts the unbridled passion and fear of the young Pi. Without having to have shown a transformation in the character visually, Lee was able to give the character of Pi a weight he wouldn’t otherwise have had.

While the frame story does well for the character or Pi, it is the true downfall of this film as a whole. The film begins in Canada with the adult Pi meeting with an author who had met his uncle and been directed to find Pi to hear his incredible story. For the first half hour of the film the adult Pi acts as Narrator and we get comfortable with that. But when the shipwreck happens we lose his narration until the last twenty minutes, and it is missed at times. However the real crime of the frame story is one of exposition. There is a scene, arguably the most powerful in the film, which could have been a brilliant display in subtle film making. If the narration had been left out of that one scene, the film as a whole would have been better. However, Irrfan Khan’s narration hits the viewer over the head with the message of the scene and it then loses its intended effect. That problem plagues the last act of the film and quite simply ruins the emotional weight that Life of Pi could have carried.

Life of Pi deserves Oscar nominations for special effects, editing, cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, and a good case can be made that it deserves the statues in all of those categories. It is likely to also garner nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay although I wouldn’t agree in its deservedness.

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