For all this talk of unfilmable books, people will persist in having a go. If there really is such a thing, it might be William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, a book which, even with a respectable-if-problematic film adaptation thanks to David Cronenberg, still lives entirely on the page. Since Hollywood can and will scavenge from any corner available to avoid original thought of its own, there really is no such thing as an unfilmable book any more. Just harder challenges. So here then is Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi; the tale of a boy and a tiger adrift at sea.
It’s been a tangled journey getting this onto cinema screens. Directors have been and gone long before Ang Lee signed up. Lee’s body of work is varied, almost to a fault, excelling in productions both modest and expansive – The Ice Storm is one of my favourite films of the 90’s, whilst Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon pointedly upstaged Hollywood with its majestic sweep and beautiful vistas. Generally speaking with Lee, however, the more intimate the better is my rule of thumb.
You may argue what’s more intimate than a film in which, for a lion’s share of the runtime, the screen is occupied by one human character struggling to survive at sea. Yet, through it’s tremendously impressive kaleidoscopic visuals, Lee’s film feels anything but personal. Life Of Pi is a feast for the eyes, and when viewed in 3D, provides some of the technology’s most accomplished showboating. Make no mistake, you will not have seen anything quite this colourful all year. But do pretty colours make for a satisfying film? In this instance… no.
For all its technological flare, the end result feels like a hell of a lot of style that’s been expensively conjured to mask a paucity of substance. Strip away all the phosphorescent jellyfish and cutesy meerkats and you’re left with a fairly minimal tale, one which constantly pushes reason to breaking point and, thanks to an admittedly unexpected curveball in the final act, proves untrustworthy at best.
Part of the problem is in the film’s very structure. Pi’s survival with wild tiger Richard Parker (yes, that’s the tiger’s name) is related by Pi’s older self. His telling of the tale frames the film, but his very existence as an adult removes any danger presented by Parker. Likewise, Pi’s battle to simply survive has a foregone conclusion. So why, you might reasonably ask, are we expected to watch for two hours?
The answer to this is a promise that, by the end of the story, we’ll have witnessed something that’ll convince us of God’s existence. High claims. Pi subscribes to multiple faiths, chancing it with as many deities as he can. In an effort to appeal to everyone, his quest for religious fulfillment is – I’m sorry – dead in the water. You may find this moment of grace in the movie where it all comes together. I missed it entirely. It was swept away from me by a questionable narrative which more openly suggests that faith is little more than wanton self deception. Believing the prettier lie.
The other significant problem is that all of Lee’s technological gimmickry works against him. Life Of Pi is all artifice and never for a moment lets you forget it. Those calmer-than-calm seas like immaculate lakes of honey are too good to be true, so they read as unbelievable. Likewise, as impressive a creation as Richard Parker unquestionably is… he’s still just that. I spent my time staring at him, looking for faults or flaws, instead of accepting him as a character in the story. And whilst Lee remains admirably playful throughout, toying with aspect ratios and lobbing in an eye-popping journey into the mind’s eye, it all serves to remind the viewer that they’re at a remove from the story being told. I can’t help but wonder if a stripped down version with people in silly animal suits and Mighty Boosh style cardboard sets wouldn’t have achieved the same effect for a pittance of the price.
And a few of these pretty CG effects simply don’t work. Water effects have come on in leaps and bounds, and the visuals during the storm which sets Pi adrift are genuinely astonishing… yet throughout the film ripple-effects look positively awful. Oily and unreal. Ultimately this feels as authentic an oceanic adventure as The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. And that film had Bill Murray going for it.
Toward the end of the film, the older Pi cries as he recounts his story. I have no doubts that the actor Irrfan Khan has the ability to evoke the emotional range required to bring himself to tears for his craft. Yet I doubted their authenticity. I sat and wondered whether they had been added in post, just to make it better. Such is the level of ‘enhancement’ that Life Of Pi is cast in. As for Suraj Sharma – who portrays teenage Pi, and therefore shoulders most of the ‘real’ work in the film – he’s fine. A good, solid performance, albeit one that is being constantly upstaged.
Life Of Pi is like going to an expensive firework display. Its impressive whilst it lasts, and maybe it lasts a little too long, but once it’s done it leaves nothing of itself with you. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that Ang Lee has evoked in me with any true accuracy, it’s seasickness.
P.S: This film is on the market here in the UK as a PG, and I would take that rating seriously also. Parental guidance. Some scenes here will upset small children.