My last posts discussed 3D in general and the lack of need for it in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My falling out of love with 3D has become more firmly established with another auteur’s experiment with the format. Since James Cameron started using the new technology, other auteurs have been getting in on the act. Martin Scorsese used 3D to dramatise early cinema in Hugo; Steven Spielberg brought Tintin to the big screen with performance capture in 3D; Werner Herzog used 3D in his documentary about proto-cinema, Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Ridley Scott went back into deep space with Prometheus while Jackson returned to Middle Earth. 2013 will see Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, and Ang Lee used 3D for his adaptation of Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” novel, Life of Pi.
Life of Pi is a surreal fable about faith, survival, one’s place in the universe and the nature of storytelling. I was impressed with its dramatic story and compelling central character, superbly played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma. Pi’s relationships with his family, his girlfriend Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath) and, most importantly, Richard Parker the Bengal tiger are engaging and moving, and the film delivers an interesting discussion of faith. The young Pi’s (Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur) embrace of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim religions, set against his father’s (Adil Hussain) insistence on science and rationality, is presented sympathetically but not didactically. As a theoretical agnostic and practical atheist, I had no problem with Pi’s faith nor his belief that his story would make the listener believe in God. It didn’t, but I could sympathise with his beliefs. Perhaps that is itself a form of faith.
Visual effects are frequently accused of being empty spectacle, but they can also be an integral part of the filmic experience. Life of Pi uses its effects as part of its narrative and thematic meanings. An early scene of Pi (Sharma) and Richard Parker the tiger on the lifeboat recalls the fantastical landscapes of the afterlife in The Lovely Bones, the boat adrift in a flat sea that reflects the sun and sky perfectly. Other images include a raging typhoon, ship corridors filling with water, a sea exploding with flying fish, the ocean by night coming alive with bioluminescent lifeforms, an island rippling with meerkats. The images are simultaneously beautiful and threatening, such as a humpback whale bursting out of the sea, mouth agape, in a dazzling cascade of glittering water; yet as the whale crashed back into the sea, the raft of our hero Pi is capsized. Simultaneously, we are awed by what we see and never allowed to forget how dangerous this situation is.
Paramount among these effects is the character of Richard Parker. Just as Gollum in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey demonstrated the advances in performance capture, so does Richard Parker demonstrate an incredible combination of CGI, animatronics and green-screened animal footage. Digital animals still look digital, and the menagerie in Life of Pi is a combination of real creatures and CGI creations. At times, they do look fake, including Richard Parker, but at other times it is genuinely difficult to tell whether you are seeing a flesh and blood animal or a beautifully animated set of pixels. Not that it matters, as Richard Parker is extremely engaging whether physical or not. At no point did I not believe Pi was in danger from the huge cat, and the film maintains this conceit. It is always tempting to sentimentalise animals in fiction, make them more human and sympathetic, but Life of Pi keeps Richard Parker ferocious and Pi’s relationship with him cautious at best. The one moment in which they share physical contact is contextualised so as to avoid unnecessary sentimentality (although a little is alright), and therefore succeeds as a touching engagement between human and animal. Equally, Richard Parker’s exit from the film maintains the animal’s indifference, which adds to Pi’s distress even at the moment of his rescue.
The visual effects of Life of Pi serve as part of the film’s themes and narrative, rather than distracting from them, because they are part of Lee’s visual style. Life of Pi combines a straightforward shot pattern during the wraparound story with a more fluid approach for Pi’s story. This approach begins with the opening credits, words and names appearing like the animals in the zoo, with the final credit, “Directed by Ang Lee”, forming as if floating on a pool of water. This level of visual invention permeates Pi’s narrated story. Dissolves that ripple like reflections, superimpositions and multiple planes of action, as well as digital enhancements and backgrounds, create an almost ethereal visual palette. This obviously makes Pi’s story more fantastic, but it also demonstrates the construction of storytelling. Storytelling is not just a process of simple relation, but of imagination and construction, the film suggests, and beautiful shots of the lifeboat floating on a mirror-like ocean at night, as if it were floating in the void of space itself, indicate the way Pi’s narration is working. When Pi and Richard Parker gaze over the side of the boat into the watery abyss, we see the imagined wreck of the freighter, the other animals that died in the sinking, and the myriad of creatures that inhabit the deep. By presenting these as part of Pi’s imagination, the viewer is drawn further into his/the film’s imaginative/creative process. The mind, and the stories told by it, work in free form, surreal processes, and the abstraction allowed by digital effects is utilised to great effect in Life of Pi.
Intriguingly, despite Pi being in constant danger, my overall impression of Life of Pi was one of serenity, which I argue to be a prevalent theme throughout Lee’s work. Sense and Sensibility shows women trying to achieve balance between their emotional and practical well-being when their options are very limited. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon uses its balletic fight sequences to express the warrior’s serene discipline, but this discipline is in tension with their personal relationships. Brokeback Mountain portrays two characters that want nothing more than the peace they bring each other, but are thwarted by societal mores. Taking Woodstock portrays serenity and beauty amidst what should be chaos (and a lot of mud). I have long been an advocate of Hulk, which I consider a very interesting meditation on superheroics: despite its central character being fuelled by rage, Hulk includes moments of serenity, which is what Bruce Banner needs but only finds, ironically, in the form of Hulk (when left alone). Pi, for all the ghastly danger he encounters, also possesses an inner serenity, facilitated by his faith. That is why the religious element of the film is effective, because it demonstrates that Pi is grounded by faith, but guided by hope.
From a strictly narrative perspective, I initially thought the film would have benefitted from more ambiguity as to what happened to Pi. The framing narrative, in which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrates his story to the writer (Rafe Spall), is presented as the truth, and the alternative version the young Pi presents to Japanese insurance investigators is simply something official. By including this alternative at the very end, the narrative of Life of Pi does not explore the pliability of truth, just the need for non-fantastical stories. At first, I found the exploration of storytelling in Life of Pi to be underwhelming, because of the alternative story’s inclusion at the very end (which I assume is how it appears in the novel), but on reflection, I realise that the film as a whole is exploring this point, but through visual, cinematic storytelling rather than straightforward narration. This interest in the construction of visual narrative gives Life of Pi significant depth, even in two dimensions.
It is perhaps notable that the auteurs who have made 3D films have subsequently returned to 2D: Spielberg followed The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn with War Horse; Scorsese’s next film, The Wolf of Wall Street is in 2D as is Scott’s The Counselor. Robert Zemeckis has made several 3D motion capture animations including The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf, but up next from him is the more typical Flight. Other directors such as Christopher Nolan are opposed to the format, and others are committed to 3D, most obviously James Cameron, who spoke very highly of Life of Pi. Life of Pi has much in common with Avatar: while one is an action epic and the other a tale of (almost) lone survival, both use visual effects to create their environments, jungle in one case, ocean in the other (which is slightly ironic, as Cameron has a fascination with water as demonstrated in The Abyss and Titanic, while reports of Avatar 2 indicate it will feature Pandora’s oceans). Through their use of visual effects as key to cinematic expression, both films explore issues of cinema and visual understanding. 3D does enhance this experience, but it is not integral to it. The digital landscapes and characters, rendered through crisp, digital cinematography, are rich, vibrant and alive in two dimensions, without a 30% light loss. Maybe in 3D I would have been swept up in Life of Pi more than I was, and realised the meta-storytelling immediately rather than afterwards, but I don’t mind the wait. Rich aesthetic experiences need not come in a rush, time taken to reflect is time taken to savour. And besides, Lee’s choice to place the camera at sea level and have it rocking with the swell might have induced greater nausea in 3D.