Tuesday, December 11, 2012

LIFE OF PI Is an Incredible Voyage

LIFE OF PI Review:

LIFE OF PI is a movie I've been turning over in my head for the last week since I saw it in the theater. On one level, it makes a clear, strong impression from a visual standpoint. The movie is drop-dead gorgeous, totally stunning in 3D. Some of the imagery in the film is some truly next-level $@%&. If you want to see the new standard-bearer for eye-melting storybook imagery in 3D, go see Life of Pi as soon as you're able. At the same time, what wasn't as immediately clear to me was to what extent the movie succeeded on a narrative / thematic level. I honestly was quite taken aback by some of the late-game twists in the story, and I was left with a nagging, persistent feeling of "wait, what?" after seeing the film. What did it all mean? At first, I had a somewhat negative reaction to the film's ending. I was mentally prepared for a certain kind of story, and what I got was something different. And from a purely dramatic perspective, there's no doubt that the ending of the film is a comedown from the sweeping highs of that which comes before. Don't worry, I won't spoil anything here. Suffice it to say ... after many days of rolling LIFE OF PI around in my head, I've come to the following conclusion: I give Ang Lee a lot of credit. I believe that he made some very deliberate, calculated decisions about how to present this film. And I believe that Ang Lee's creative choices here result in a film that willingly sacrifices some pure entertainment value for poignancy and philosophical depth. This is a film that will spur endless discussions, that will be shown in classrooms, that will lead to many spirited debates about truth and faith. And so I salute Ang Lee and LIFE OF PI. Not only is the film - based on the novel by Yann Martel - a visual marvel, but it also has a surprising thematic depth. While the visuals are easy to get absorbed in, the film's message and meaning prove to be a worthwhile challenge to explore.

LIFE OF PI utilizes a narrative framing device in which a Canadian writer seeks out a local legend in order to hear his story. That legend is Pi Patel, a tranquil, spiritual-seeming man of Indian origin. Pi tells the writer that his is indeed a larger-than-life tale, and that it is a story that will make the writer "believe in God." And so Pi proceeds to tell his tale. Pi begins with some anecdotes about his childhood - about his quest for spiritual insights as a boy growing up in India (he was a Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all at once), and about his early experiences living at the zoo that his father owned. Eventually, Pi's father decides to sell the zoo and its animals and emigrate to French Canada. Pi and his family board a boat that carries not just them, but all of their exotic animals - monkeys, tigers, lions, birds, and more. But when a horrible storm wrecks the ship, all hell breaks loose. Pi finds himself alone, stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean - alone except for one companion, a fearsome Bengal Tiger (amusingly named Richard Parker due to a clerical mix-up), who has also found his way on to the lifeboat.

Pi's story becomes one of desperate survival, with the dual challenge of finding food and shelter, and also of living in tandem with a man-eating tiger. Ang Lee depicts these struggles with incredible dynamism, emotion, and intensity. The tiger is CGI, but after overcoming the initial uncanny-valleyness of it all, it's amazing how real Richard Parker begins to seem. Even more amazing is the acting from Suraj Sharma, as teenaged Pi aboard that boat. How he was able to channel so much emotion and genuine-seeming fear, desperation, and determination while acting opposite a CGI beast, I do not know. But he is pretty remarkable in the film. There is a real relationship between boy and beast that develops over the course of the film. Although again - that's part of Ang Lee's magic trick. The film itself posits a central question of whether the Tiger has a soul, or whether we simply superimpose our own humanity onto its primal existence. On a meta-level, the same is true for us, the audience. We imagine a real bond between Pi and Richard Parker, but is there one? And isn't the tiger just a CGI creation anyways? The movie is constantly using its story as metaphor - leaving us to wonder about what is real, and what is illusion.

On the visuals ... Wow. The 3D pops in ways that most live-action movies haven't. Part of that is due to the stunning, storybook-like scenes that Lee crafts. Some are serene and haunting (a nighttime encounter with a legion of glowing jellyfish), some are kinetic and terrifying (a swarm of leaping fish attacking Pi like locusts). In fact, the whole movie is in some ways incredibly intense and at times scary and disturbing in how it depicts nature as a tempestuous, chaotic, force. I know I may never look at the ocean the same way again. Seriously though, many parts of this movie made me feel genuinely uneasy - it's definitely not all rainbows and moonbeams.

I mentioned that Suraj Sharma is really excellent as the teenage Pi who we spend time with for the bulk of the film. Given how much of the movie he has to carry, it's some really admirable acting, that I think merits consideration come awards season. I also really liked Irrfan Khan as the older, adult Pi. In the framing sequences, he exudes an enlightened calmness that helps add perspective and context to the story. Plus, Khan is just a great storyteller, and the story of Pi's oceanic adventure is all the more captivating as framed by his older self's narration.

The biggest point of contention on the film will be how the framing device is used, and, in particular, the film's ending. Again, won't spoil anything here. But I will say that I still wonder if the final ten minutes or so of the film could have been told in a more dynamic manner. Like I said, after all of the visual marvels we have seen over the course of the film, the decision to have the last ten minutes play out in such a bland, almost boring manner seems odd. Of course, it's a calculated move by Lee - a way to make a meta-point about the nature of the film's narrative. But still ... you have to wonder if the point might have been made in a way that was more of an exclamation point, and less of a head-scratcher.

This has been a year of movies that have grand thematic ambitions, but never quite coalesce into anything more than a jumble of stray ideas and musings. I'm thinking of movies like The Master, Killing Them Softly, and even Prometheus. But I put LIFE OF PI a leg above those films because I feel like there is just a bit more real wisdom in it for those who study and discuss the film to discover - more genuine meat to chew on. Unlike the other films I mentioned, PI didn't fade from my thoughts after a day or so. It's sticky. It's got mind-melting imagery that will be burned into your brain, as well as genuinely interesting philosophical questions at its core. I think that some of those questions come, ever-so-slightly, at the expense of narrative momentum. But I still, ultimately, found this to be a completely fascinating film - one that is genuinely unique and even risky - in its subject matter and in how it brings to life Martel's book. LIFE OF PI is one of the finest films of 2012 - a journey into nature, and a journey into the mind.

My Grade: A-

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