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NYFF 2012: ‘Life of Pi’ is a visual phenomenon, if somewhat shallow

NYFF 2012: ‘Life of Pi’ is a visual phenomenon, if somewhat shallow

Life of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by David Magee

Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi has spent four years in the making, an epic attempt by the director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to harness developing digital technology to film a novel that would have been utterly unfilmable as few as ten years ago. The time was well spent; the result is a technological marvel, a feast for the eyes that can punch its ticket for the Oscar ceremony right now.

A writer played by Rafe Spall meets an Indian man named Pi (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) because he’s been told that Pi has an amazing story to tell. Indeed he does: while he was still a teenager (Suraj Sharma), Pi survived a horrific shipwreck and months of being stranded at sea. Pi’s story is told in flashback, as he sketches in full the circumstances which put him on the ship and what he had to do to survive at sea while sharing his lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

The beauty of this movie cannot be emphasized enough. It looks stunning in 3-D, with every composition designed to use the technology. The animal effects are mind-blowing, with even the revolutionary simians from Rise of the Planet of the Apes left in the dust by the efforts to bring the tiger to life. Someone somewhere has surely described Life of Pi as “Avatar meets Cast Away,” but in truth it resembles neither of them. Visually, this film is wholly unique.

As with a film like Avatar, though, the spectacular visuals don’t leave much room for subtlety from the actors. This is a film in which, should a character have any important thoughts on his mind (especially regarding God), he’ll turn to another character or to the camera and declare them as flatly as possible. As dazzling as this picture can be, it’s a slight disappointment to see so little nuance and emotional complexity from the man behind The Ice Storm.

The most challenging aspect of Life of Pi is a semi-twist ending which calls into question some of what has been seen. Khan and Sharma deliver their best acting at that moment, injecting some legitimate ambiguity into a film which had previously been so on-the-nose that the nose may have been broken. It’s unlikely that Life of Pi will inspire much philosophical discussion, but what little it does inspire will come from that ending.

It’s possible to quibble with Life of Pi, if one were so inclined. (For one thing, it is odd to see a film that takes place in India yet has people who speak so little Hindi to each other.) However, those quibbles are not likely to come to mind while watching it, as Lee blows all else away with the incredible effects. As spectacle, as technical achievement, as a justification of the existence of 3-D technology, Life of Pi more than makes up for its shortcomings.

-Mark Young

The New York Film Festival celebrates 50 years this year and selected Life of Pi to launch its festivities. 20th Century Fox will give the film a wider release on November 21.