Based on the book, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, the 2012 film faithfully retains the premise of a boy, Pi Patel, who is trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker after the ship transporting the Patel family and their troupe of zoological animals to Canada is sunk. Making the most of the current capability of CG effects, the tiger and other animals (hybrids between real footage and digital reconstruction) seamlessly integrate with the human actors and carefully crafted landscapes. The use of 3D was deemed good enough to warrant praise from fervently anti-3D critics Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode . Director Ang Lee has been enthusiastic about using stereoscopic technology and his film provides a clear case for using 3D techniques for a spectacular form of visual storytelling.
The introduction to the film begins with slow, often static shots of the Patel family’s zoological gardens. Animals graze amongst a luscious backdrop of delicately arranged trees, plants and shrubbery while hanging branches and dripping leaves frame the vistas. There is a strong sense that the black borders of the cinema screen provide the edge of a window into a tranquil, tropical world. Only occasionally, a bird flies around the space and crosses between the world behind that window and the auditorium space where the audience is seated. The gentle pacing of the opening shots and the film’s unobtrusive contemplation of the creatures is reminiscent of the numerous IMAX 3D wildlife documentaries that continue to be popular. When a lizard faces the camera and sticks its tongue out towards us, it seems to be saying, ‘look at me’ in a brief moment that foretells the greater spectacle that is yet to come.
As a pool of water ebbs into the auditorium beneath some pink flamingos, we are given the first glimpse of the liquid underbelly that will rock us gently (and more forcefully) throughout the rest of the film. A number of recent 3D films such as Sanctum (2011), Piranha 3D (2010), Titanic 3D (2012), The Three Musketeers (2011) and Bait 3D (2012) have made effective use of water at the bottom of the screen space as it dissolves the barrier between the content of the film and the auditorium; audiences can no longer see where the bottom of the screen begins and their safe space in the theatre ends. While this play on the optic senses is particularly clear when the water takes up only a portion of the vertical screen space, there are many other moments in Life of Pi when a liquid constitution overwhelms the view. There are numerous shots filmed from under the water where bubbles and small pieces of jetsam drift in negative parallax to the viewer and the space between the audience and the screen seems to become thick and heavy. In a couple of these shots, Pi’s floating body hangs into the auditorium space. In other shots, particularly the stormy, tempestuous moments when Pi is stuck out at sea, the camera is not placed underwater but torrents of liquid gush around the scenes with the never-realised threat of engulfing the audience. The ephemeral nature of these effects is enhanced in a particular shot when there is a slow dissolve between Pi’s uncle in the swimming pool and Pi in his Canadian house. The strange change of screen quality from a liquescent texture to defined objects separated in deep space makes it clear that the film builds upon and advertises its illusions.
One of the most stunning of the film’s visual moments takes place when Pi, trapped on his raft, wakes up to find himself surrounded by gleaming phosphorescent jellyfish. They provide a wide tapestry of neon patterns shining through the inky waters where Pi rests. By gleefully disturbing them with his hand, his action inadvertently calls a huge blue whale to the surface of the water which, dripping with phosphorescent decoration, leaps high into the air and turns Pi and the raft upside down. In the trailers for the film, this moment seems so overtly spectacular that I originally presumed it was part of a dream sequence. Instead, the film carefully builds it extravagant landscapes and its fantastical moments towards a crescendo at this point so that this moment seems fully integrated into the fictional world in which Pi exists.
True to the book, Life of Pi’s fantastical tale tries to convince you that it will make you believe in god. While the film (and the book) is open to a pluralistic notion of faith as made apparent by Pi’s non-contradictory ability to assimilate tenets of Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity, the attention to channelling creed detracts from a more simple awe. The magical power of the film’s visual effects and the beautiful majesty of Richard Parker are enough to remind us that the world around us has an infinite capacity to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. The rich simplicity of a boy and a tiger trapped alone at sea (a concept that was supposedly unfilmable) is a testament to the human mind’s imaginative energy. It is not something that needs to be reduced to moral tales yet much of the dialogue between the human characters does just that. The clearest examples take place during conversations between Pi and the writer in Pi’s Canadian house and between the Patel family at their dinner table. True to the new editing language that is being developed for 3D cinema, the camera is held static on the scene and lengthy takes allow the action to unfold in detail. Set mostly in positive parallax, the screen frame is the oft conceived window onto events. And, as with most 3D cinema, this is not a window onto a pure representation of our visual world but instead produces a type of hyper-reality in the visual field that is in part due to the grand scale of the figures and partly because of the slightly different contouring that stereoscopic depth produces. The effect is that we are suspended in close proximity to the characters and drawn into their slightly unreal world without any escape as they state their benign messages. In contrast to the spectacular 3D effects that allow the audience’s mind to leap into new places, these scenes dull the opulent fantasy narrative to a saccharine, easily digested tale.