The Films of 2012: Life of Pi

Ang Lee has made a successful career as a journeyman filmmaker, dabbling in a variety of genres—the kung fu drama, the Western, the period piece.  With Life of Pi, he tries his hand at what fifty years ago would have been called an animal picture.  Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi centers on an Indian youth who survives a shipwreck only to find himself sharing a life-raft with a Bengal tiger.  It’s part adventure yarn, part spiritual autobiography, and if it doesn’t exactly work on the latter terms, it’s at least an engaging and beautifully mounted diversion, and it sports some of the year’s most striking imagery.

Shot in 3D and utilizing a mĂ©lange of technological effects—the ocean scenes appear to have been created using CGI, animatronics, and live actors of various species—it doesn’t ever look exactly “real,” but that’s hardly the point, since it endeavors to transport us to places that have never really existed outside of the realm of fantasy.  It presents itself as a fairy tale or a parable, and it draws on myths from more than one religious tradition (its pantheistic main character identifies as Christian, Muslim, and Hindu).  Fittingly, then, the characters in the film are somewhat flat and uncomplicated, and the composition of the images suggests that of a frieze, a tapestry, or an arrangement of icons.  I mean that last part as a compliment: the boy and the tiger, alone on the surface of the ocean, look like ancient totems.  These scenes, which comprise the heart of the film, have a certain majestic power.  We become immersed in the vast reaches of sky and water, the dividing line between which appears to be erased; we float in a nebulous haze of color, golden yellow at dawn, stark white at midday, shimmering black-and-blue at night, with the glow of jellyfish below mirroring the glow of the stars above.     

In this, Life of Pi resembles last year’s Hugo in its evocation of the most basic cinematic pleasure, that of getting lost in the sheer power of the image.  This is, to be sure, no small feat.  Beyond this, though, it’s a mostly insubstantial film; it gestures toward some metaphysical points about truth and fiction and the nature of man, but this attempt at philosophizing feels at odds with the purity of the film’s images, which are really too grand and awesome to support such complicated ideas.  This is where Lee as a filmmaker falters: he tries to convey profundity by gesturing toward Great Themes, failing to realize that the images are profoundly great in themselves.  That Life of Pi is more or less a silent movie—and that what little dialogue it does have feels mostly useless—tells us something about where its strengths lie.

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