Film review: “The Life of Pi” (2012)

Most moviegoers anticipate a coherent, engrossing plot and actors skilled enough to interpret it. But without the vision of a Director, the actors wallow like a rudderless ship. It’s the Director’s vision that pulls it all together.

Look to the past.  The scene in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) where Peter O’Toole blows out the match and the scene instantly morphs to wide angled desert dunes. Dr. Zhivago’s dacha silently covered in ice (1965). A space station in “2001: A Space Odyssey” spinning to the strains of Johan Strauss (1968). The constant backdrop rain in “Blade Runner” (1982). These were all creations of the Director. The actors were coached on how to fulfill the Director’s vision.

The Life of Pi (2012) is, stem to stern, a Director’s film. The action sequences are custom formulated for the actors to inhabit. The sets are magnificent, the world-class cinematography as good as it gets. Ang Lee has matured since “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), to my mind an underappreciated masterpiece of human emotion. He can now sit comfortably at the table with David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese.

That said, The Life of Pi is a conceptual dud. A film adaptation of the book by Yann Martel was said to be impossible. This proved to be prophetic. The plot is contrived and preachy; a sow’s ear crafted into a silk purse by a masterful Director. The pseudo-religious connotation doesn’t work as an elegant proof of God. The “surprise” ending doesn’t quite get off the ground as an allegorical morality conundrum. “Cast Away” (2000) did it better.

I recommend this film specifically for the beyond incredible visual effects. See the 3-D version as it’s worth the extra three bucks. Otherwise,  Hold your nose at the end.

Best Quip:  “Then it’s done….We sail for America….Like Columbus”.  “Yeah….but Columbus was looking for India”.

I give it 3.1416 of 5 snarling computer generated tigers, and that’s a gift to the gifted Director.


Followup remarks:

This is a book that many said could not be made into a film. There is one other book in my memory that critics said the same thing about and that was “Catch22” by Joe Heller (1962). The book was so convoluted and so many complex threads that any film made of it would have to be ten hours long. But they did make a movie out of it in 1970 and the hype surrounding it permeated the universe. Big name stars like Alan Arkin, Art Garfunkle, Orson Welles, Anthony Perkins, Bob Newhart, Jon Voight. Directed by Mike Nichols fresh off “The Graduate”.  It was filmed on location all over the world, cost a ton of money and was expected to be the blockbuster of the century.

It was a critical and commercial flop. It was reported that it nearly brought down Paramount Pictures at the time.  Why?  All the ingredients were there. Interesting story line, excellent actors, world class director.

Sometimes there has to be a quotient of magic to make a great film other than the personnel coming together in concert. Some indefinable prestidigitation to make the brew digestible. No one has yet figured out how to make that happen in advance.

At the 2010 Santa Fe Film Fest, Alan Arkin, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss gathered to discuss the film.  It’s an interesting read and can be found at:

Arkin remarked:

“For one thing, we had about 30 B-25 bombers on the runway of the set. Real B-25 bombers. And the Mexican government was very nervous because with all those bombers, we were the fifth largest air force in the world. Had we wanted to, we could’ve taken Mexico. And if we did, it would’ve been cheaper than making the film”.

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