As with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, the decision of Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee to helm a major motion picture in 3-D bestowed respectability upon a format which many regard as little more than a marketing gimmick. Lee’s Life of Pi, adapted from Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, is certainly a technical marvel, utilising every three-dimensional trick at the director’s disposal, from subtle shifts in depth of field to staggering moments of visual bombast. How well the film translates to home video, where the overwhelming majority of the public opt for the traditional 2-D format, can now be assessed.
Its story is a faithful adaptation of Martel’s text, recalling also Danny Boyle’s tremendously successful Slumdog Millionaire by way of its Indian-setting and introductory paean to childhood, even if protagonist Pi (played for the majority of the film by Suraj Sharma) is of a more fortunate class than the hero in Boyle’s film. Raised in Puducherry, Indian – recently independent of French colonial rule – Pi is the son of a zoo-owner. Though suffering taunts at school for the unfortunate phonetic pronunciation of his full name, Piscine (French for ‘swimming pool’), Pi eventually finds romance with a local dancer, leaving him all the more distraught when his father decides to relocate in Canada for the sake of Pi and his brother. Sailing to Canada on an ocean-liner, they are struck by a calamitous storm, which sinks the ship and leaves Pi alone on a solitary lifeboat, his only companion a ferocious tiger named Richard Parker.
It is here that the majority of Life of Pi takes place, although its preceding sequence, the sinking of the ship, is surely the high-water mark of the film (no pun intended). An epic tracking shot follows Pi through the various sections of the vessel before he dives into the water that is submerging his family and their cargo, with the camera following suit. This tremendously effective moment is perhaps an homage to Mikhail Kalatozov’s much-imitated I Am Cuba (for other examples see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). Pi’s time spent on the lifeboat, learning to stave off the advances of the oddly-christened Richard Parker (named for the tiger’s original owner, due to a clerical error). While Sharma is a compelling screen presence, alone but for the animal, stunningly-rendered in CGI, there is much overlap between the film and Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, produced before Martel’s book was even published.
We are also given little time to grieve for Pi’s family, abandoned by the crew of the ship to drown, although the contemporary bookends of the film, with Pi (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) detailing his story to an unidentified writer (Rafe Spall), allows an alternative reading of his tale, a move which has proved divisive among audiences. Lee’s decision to shift aspect ratios – from 1:85:1 to cinemascope – for a set-piece involving flying fish is also slightly distracting.
Earning Lee his second Academy Award for Best Director, the effect of Life of Pi may be slightly-diminished on the small screen, though its colossal box-office gross (over $600 million) suggests there may be fewer left to catch up with the life than one would imagine.
Life of Pi is available to rent or buy from Friday April 26th.