Life Of Pi


How Ang Lee made effects special again

Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, once reckoned that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

He would have been wowed by Life Of Pi, a truly gorgeous adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

Featuring some of the most eyeball-popping CGI this side of the planet Pandora, Ang Lee’s fourtime Oscar-winner (including Best Director and, of course, Best Visual Effects) conjures wonders from its mainframes like a conjuror pulling rabbits from a hat: whales splash into luminescent oceans, banyan forests teem with meerkats and a tiger named Richard Parker prowls, growls and even swims. In some shots he’s a real beast. You won’t spot the difference.

For years, Martel’s novel was written off as unfilmable. Directors including M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón were attached and then departed.

Fox baulked as the projected budget spiralled over $120 million. But, after Ang Lee saw James Cameron’s Avatar, he knew that the Cameron Pace Group’s 3D technology had finally made the impossible possible.

Largely shot on a 1.7-million gallon wave tank in Taiwan, as well as in India and Canada, Life Of Pi swaps the epic alien scope of Avatar for a tighter earthbound focus.

Its story centres on shipwrecked Indian teen Piscine “Pi” Patel (debutant Suraj Sharma), who’s forced to share a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger for hundreds of days on the Pacific Ocean.

With nowhere to go beyond the confines of the 26ft boat, you’d expect Life Of Pi’s setup to quickly lose its tension. But Richard Parker isn’t just a hungry carnivore.

Created by Rhythm & Hues Studios, the VFX company behind Aslan in The Chronicles Of Narnia, he’s a character too. From his twitching whiskers to his slowly sagging muscles as starvation takes its toll, this CG cat feels incredibly alive.

Life, ultimately, is what Life Of Pi is about. Opening in India, it follows Pi – the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry – as he grows up, attends school and falls in love. Obsessed with converting from one religion to another, Pi’s childhood comes to an abrupt end when his father decides to emigrate to Winnipeg.

He plans to take the zoo animals to North America and sell them to fund a new life in Canada. But mid-voyage, a huge storm sinks the freighter.

Pi’s left adrift on a boat, with only Richard Parker, a spotted hyena, an injured zebra and an orang-utan for company. The relationship between the boy and the big cat is the crux of the movie.

They begin as enemies but their mutual hatred evolves into begrudging dependence. Asking big questions about what it means not just to live but also to be alive, Life Of Pi is as much a philosophical journey as it is an escapist spectacle.

From Jane Austen to Marvel Comics to male-shepherd romances, Lee’s CV is eclectic enough to suggest he’s up to the challenge of stirring both the soul and the senses.

And so it proves here, in a film that can be savoured on multiple levels: as a spiritual odyssey, a state-of-the-art spectacular and as a treatise on the resourcefulness and stamina we can summon when we’re trying to stay alive.

The extras, including the 63-minute documentary A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey, inevitably mull over the process of turning oceans of green screen into a sea of dreams.

The spotlight also falls on Sharma, whose ability, for someone so inexperienced, to act convincingly against thin air really dazzles.

But even he would surely concede that he’s not the true star of the show. Richard Parker gets his own featurette (Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright), offering side-by-side shots of the real and CG animal. It shows just how uncanny the illusion is.

He’s a digital big cat who lives and breathes in a story that isn’t about humanising the beast but is instead a literary fable about the beast lurking within us all.

It’s proof that FX-heavy blockbuster 3D cinema isn’t just a vessel for high-flying popcorn thrills. It can underpin moving, intimate human drama too. Now that’s magic.

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