Second Breakfast: Gaining Relevancy with Life of Pi


Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls put your hands together for… Oscar Season! Oh yeah, it’s good stuff. Rooster Illusion is reviewing Lincoln and Argo; Tuesday Zone’s got its eye on Silver Linings Playbook and Amour; Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit, Django Unchained and Les Mis have not yet come out. Well, I’ll be damned if I get left out of this party like the Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday crowd.

Life of Pi (2012)

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.13.55 PM

20th Century Fox
I have not reviewed a movie in theaters since Looper.

The Plot: A writer (Rafe Spall) hears about this Indian guy living in Montreal who supposedly has a story that will make one believe in God. So he hunts down this Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear the story he has to tell, and what a scoop! Pi recounts many important details of his life to this writer. He explains how his father owned and ran a zoo, how as a child he was often picked on for his name (short for the French piscine, meaning “pool,” but sounding in English like “pissing”), how he struggled with his own personal identity, how he found solace in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, and about that one time that he was stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. That last part comprises the main action of the story in which Pi (Suraj Sharma) must use his wits and his heart to overcome his extraordinarily sucky situation.

When I first saw the trailer for Life of Pi some months ago I thought one thing: “CGI-fest!” I continued to think that pretty much up until I actually saw the movie. Director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hulk; Brokeback Mountain) looked like he was really getting carried away with this whole 3D thing. CGI tiger! CGI whale! CGI boat! CGI water! 3D tiger! CGI can be an incredibly valuable tool. It can create images that are impossible to convey realistically in any other way. It can make dreams come true. It can make Sam Worthington look blue. It can totally overpower your story and make your movie into a plotless CGI-fest. This is bad. Don’t let this happen. Did Life of Pi let this happen? Aw hell no.

It’s always cool and refreshing when directors choose to reflect the themes of the film they’re making in the physical making of the film. You understand what I’m saying? You picking up what I’m putting down? Are my waves hitting your beach? Let me think of an example… Oh, here we go. In 2011 Michel Hazanavicius made The Artist, a silent film about silent films. Clever, that. In Life of Pi, Ang Lee does a similar thing with his use of computer effects. I don’t want to give anything away, really, for those of you who don’t know what happens, but I will say that Ang Lee’s strategic use of visual affects only contributes to the themes of the story, rather than detracting from them. Life of Pi is pretty to look at, but it’s not a spectacle. It’s so much more than that. Essentially, Lee uses his computers the same way Pi uses his imagination and creativity: to augment reality.

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I’m so happy that Ang Lee is still making movies, even though really he has no right to whatsoever. What do I mean by that? Let’s take a look at his IMDb page.

Sense and Sensibility, ok. Ride with the Devil, yep, that’s good. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, oh man, that’s excellent. You just solidified yourself as Hollywood superstar. Hulk, you just ended your career. Permanently. Forever. Brokeback Mountain, you won an Oscar! That’s lucky. If you hadn’t followed up Hulk with an Oscar win, I don’t want to even think about what could have happened. Close call there, buddy. M. Night Shyamalan almost ended up making Life of Pi instead. Shyamalan’s made a lot of mistakes. I’m not sure if any of them were as bad as Hulk, though. Seriously, Ang Lee, bullet dodged. Just barely, though.

Hey, remember this shameless piece of Oscar bait?

Marvel/Universal Pictures
Hey, remember this shameless piece of Oscar bait?

Back to business, the special effects are really good. The bulk of the action takes place with Pi stranded in the ocean with a tiger; I’ve mentioned that. Pretty much all of those scenes use a fake, computer-generated tiger, and it looks flawless. Seriously, I assumed they were using a real tiger for almost the whole thing, but lo and behold, the Internet would later tell me that they mostly only used a real tiger when filming it swimming, which happens, like, two or three times. Behold the following pictures of CGI perfection:

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20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.14.12 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.14.36 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.14.50 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.16.06 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.16.24 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.17.05 PM

20th Century Fox

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20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 6.22.04 PM

20th Century Fox

Screen shot 2012-12-05 at 8.13.20 PM

20th Century Fox

 All right, that’s enough about that. I didn’t intend to write three paragraphs about the CGI.It just kind of happened.

Ahem. So, the acting was strong. Suraj Sharma, especially, who shared most of his scenes with a tiger that wasn’t there. Ah crap, there I am back at the CGI. I swear that wasn’t the most important thing about this movie to me. I promise, seriously. Actually, the most important thing was the film’s message. Complimented by the CGI and the very strong, emotionally powerful, but understated performances, the story is not one of triumph and celebration; it is not one of loss and devastation; it is not a story of resourcefulness; it is not a story of friendship or family; it is not a story about religion; it is a story about fiction and faith, and its message is one that we’ve all seen in lots of books and movies, as Tim O’Brien rather nicely put it, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” Life of Pi is concerned with a similar type of truth: the truth of meaning, a “story that will make you believe in God.” It’s a movie (and a message) that improves with reflection.

If you haven’t seen Life of Pi yet, do that. It will get nominated for a lot of awards, and in this critic’s opinion, it deserves every single one of them. I’m afraid I haven’t quite done the movie justice, because I spent a lot more time talking about special effects than I intended to, but such is life. Deal with it.

5 thoughts on “Second Breakfast: Gaining Relevancy with Life of Pi

  1. I’m so glad you’ve seen it and that we agree. It was, indeed, visually stunning, but the best thing about it was that the visuals matched the message and that the message is important, especially in this day and age of obsessive “fact checking” — as if facts alone could tell us anything.

  2. Good review. May have been a bit sloppy in terms of writing, but the visuals are breathtaking and something that will definitely have your eyes advert on the screen the whole time.

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