Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Life of Pi (3D) (2012)

About seven or eight years ago, I worked in a book store. My boss at the time, a short, solid man with little round glasses and excellent taste in literature, was reading a curious little novel by Yann Martel called 'Life of Pi'. He would look at customers and myself over those little round glasses and lavish high praise for the novel, and genuinely considered it as art in literature. Seven years later, Ang Lee has directed the movie version with what we can see just from previews and posters to be a visually stunning piece of cinema.

We could easily compare it to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea; a story of a castaway battling an unforgiving Poseidon and learning about life, the world, and his own humanity. While Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature for that short novel, the film adaptation starring Spencer Tracy was an absolute yawn, capturing none of the romance or profundity which Hemingway gave that novel. When I first saw that Life of Pi was to be adapted, I had the same reservation, that Ang Lee would be making the same mistake the producers of T.O.M.A.T.S. made: filming a completely unfilmable book. When I first saw those posters and those previews, I made an erroneous assumption that Lee would be replacing an unfilmable narrative with pure visual punch.

It was a mistake I carried right until the last 15 minutes: it's not a spoiler to say, but there is a depth and profundity in Ang Lee's Life of Pi which was absent from the film adaptation of T.O.M.A.T.S. The problem--and it is a serious problem--is that the intense visuals and especially the 3D completely distract you from it. So much so that in the last 15 minutes, we're given some exposition of an alternative interpretation of the whole movie, and it's a possible interpretation I would have liked to, and may have, imagined on my own but for the distraction of the visuals. 

Hemingway, once asked what the old man and the big fish 'represent' in The Old Man and the Sea, famously responded:

“There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

The same is not true of Life of Pi, not in the film and I'd imagine should we ask my old boss, he'd look at us over his little round glasses and explain the symbolism quite pointedly. In that sense I found the 3D pushed me out of the story, rather than drew me in. 

Now I could re-watch the film in 2D, with that alternative interpretation in mind and before sitting down to write this review, that was genuinely my plan. What changed my mind was the fact that, really, I could re-watch any number of the films I've reviewed in the past, and come back with a more favourable opinion of them, but I don't. So why should Life of Pi get that privilege? After all, for those of you who read my reviews to decide whether to see the film or not, you're not looking for my opinion on what the film is like the second time you see it

Life of Pi can really be enjoyed two ways: see it in 3D and immerse yourself in the visual splendour, and don't worry about the symbolism and underlying narrative. Otherwise, see it in 2D and pay close attention to the relationships (especially early relationships) and enjoy a quite clever literary adaptation. The better or 'right' way to see it will just come down to personal taste. I don't think the two can (or perhaps should) be combined. That, I feel, is the problem with this film specifically and the problem with the use and overuse of 3D in cinema today. I liked this film, I really did, but the 3D acting as a distraction from the narrative, and at the same time giving the film visually splendour, makes me both love and hate the stereoscopic illusion all at once.

To wrap up I also should mention the brilliant and caring performance by lead Suraj Sharma; so much is demanded of him, he really is asked to carry the entire film acting against an empty space which will only later be filled in with a CGI tiger. It's a monumental task, but he does it, delivering a wonderful, measured performance. The pace of the film, too, is well measured; it doesn't waste time, but neither is it rushed. Again, I really did enjoy this film, I imagine I'll enjoy it even more the second time around, but for now I'm giving it four stars.


  1. 3D tires me out. Watching The Hobbit in 3D, with it's endless battle and chase scenes where none had been before, made me want to disembowel Peter Jackson with a rusty orc poniard. I'll wait for 2D Life of Pi.

    1. Probably a good choice if you don't want to feel conflicted about the film as I did.