Friday, November 2, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Life of Pi"

Director: Ang Lee
Runtime: 127 minutes

Ang Lee's Life of Pi marks the second big budget adaptation of a supposedly "unfilmable" novel to hit theaters this season. Yet unlike the largely divisive Cloud Atlas, Lee's take on Yann Martel's popular novel comes much closer to being a full fledged success. Gripping and intense, while also deeply human, Life of Pi had to be nothing short of a monumental undertaking. Yet Lee and his collaborators can hold their heads very (very very) high, even though several cliched tropes hold the film back from absolute brilliance.

Whereas Cloud Atlas faced a major challenge in stringing together six story threads, Lee's task was more challenging due to the lack of narrative overload. Once Pi Patel (Surraj Sharma) finds himself stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger in the Pacific Ocean, it's up to the man vs. nature interactions to carry the bulk of the drama. And this is where Mr. Lee's skills as a conjurer of magical, yet authentic visuals come in handy. With the occasional dreamlike touch, Life of Pi explores the vastness of the story's primary setting in ways that speak to the protagonist's state of mind. An increasingly delusional Pi finds himself staring into the ocean, and the camera plunges deeper and deeper, revealing creatures of the deep dark ocean before revealing elements that are clearly the work of a dream.

But perhaps more impressive than the flights of fancy are the more grounded visuals. For a movie set primarily on a lifeboat in the ocean, the setting never becomes repetitive or dull. The ocean becomes as much of a character as Pi or Richard Parker (the tiger), sometimes fighting against Pi by conjuring up storms, and sometimes allowing for smooth passage over its glasslike surface. Then, of course, there's the titular Pi and his furry friend. Sharma, in a debut performance, gives a mostly convincing portrait of exhaustion. Pi is torn in multiple ways (he is a Hindu, a Catholic, and Muslim all at once), yet no matter what name 'god' is given, floating out on the ocean is the biggest challenge to his faith. There's also the ferocious tiger, who challenges Pi on a more physical level. The film tends to go light on Pi's relationship with God/Allah/Vishnu/etc, which leaves the man vs. tiger relationship to do the heavy lifting. It's a direction that pays off on multiple levels.

The danger of adapting a work like Life of Pi is how much of the development comes from within the protagonist. Sharma has plenty of opportunities to narrate in (mercifully concise) voiceover, but it's the physical elements of the character's journey that receive more attention. "Film is a visual medium" is as tired a mantra as they come, yet Mr. Lee has applied it to Martel's novel in ways that give the saying some heft once more. Though the film runs more than two hours, the scenes with Pi and the tiger are so primal and invigorating that they lend the narrative a tremendous energy. It doesn't hurt that the visual effects team has put the film's $100 million budget towards the creation of an immaculately detailed tiger. The digital creation is far from the uncanny valley, and has the vitality of a real jungle cat. As such, the interactions between man and beast carry an authenticity that could have gone missing in less qualified hands. Sharma's interactions with his digital counterpart, some intense, others loving, are more convincing than any number of actor-on-actor pairings; it's quite remarkable.

Pi remains lost at sea for the bulk of the film, but Lee's direction is always filled with purpose, ensuring that scenes never feel redundant or dragged out. Oddly, where Life of Pi stumbles is when its characters are on solid ground. Via a framing device, the early and final sections of the story involve the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, always a welcome presence) telling his story to a journalist (Rafe Spall, given little more to do than look scruffy and handsome). This is less problematic in the opening, wherein Pi details his childhood, but it holds the film back further when it comes to the middle and end. After such effortless stretches of visual storytelling, Lee breaks Pi's journey in two by jumping back to the present. And once the film returns to Pi's journey, the voiceover of present-day Pi becomes an unwelcome guest, sometimes narrating exactly what Lee is so clearly showing on screen. For a film with such a beautifully assured middle, Life of Pi begins and ends in a rather safe, formulaic manner that undercuts the power at the core of the narrative. 

But oh, what a middle it is. From the white-knuckle intensity of the shipwreck that wipes out Pi's entire life, to the gradual bond between man and tiger, the technical and emotional genius on display is constantly evident. DP Claudio Miranda beautifully captures the imagery (land, sea, et. al), and Mychael Danna's score is rich and stirring without getting in the way of story at hand. Yet the true technical MVP, as should be clear by now, is the visual effects team. Every cent of the film's budget is visible on screen in the best way possible. The environments are gorgeously rendered with such consistency that there is never a second where one feels that some aspect is "fake." Too often, special effects overwhelm a narrative, but Lee and his team have employed them to such beautiful effect on the limited story that they actually save it. Even as Life of Pi closes out in an rather unimpressive fashion, it's impossible to dismiss the tremendous effort that Lee and company put in to bringing Martel's novel to life. It's a major achievement on the narrative and emotional levels, something that most adaptations of "unfilmable" novels rarely get to boast about. Mr. Lee hardly strikes me as the boasting type, but if ever a director earned the right to gloat this year, it's him. 

Grade: B+

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