Ang Lee’s Life of Pi took away the most Oscar statuettes in 2013, claiming prizes for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score and Best Director. These specific victories are a telling testament to the film’s prominence of grand visual set-pieces as a means to lift an ‘unfilmable’ source material into cinematic realms.
Concerns about the adaptation were widespread and far from unwarranted. Yann Martel’s 2001 book told the story of Pi, a young boy who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger for company. To better showcase the two in a small space for over two hours while rendering the entire experience palatable for audiences, Lee had to infuse the story with extra incentive. The middle ground between real-time and excitable energy was a prerequisite.
One recent example of Hollywood’s failed attempt to temper its environment is Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the story of a hiker stuck while rock-climbing. As with his previous Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle’s feature was helpless but to succumb to hyperkinetic tangents that made an ostensibly difficult tale a relatively easy pill to swallow. The protagonist stayed perfectly still, even if the camera could not.
By comparison Lee doesn’t tinker incessantly with Pi’s own pacing, instead weaving narrative interest into a sumptuous stream of luminous visual effects that bring the book’s elements to life with vivid clarity. The 3D imagery, although used gratuitously in the film’s opening act, serves as a fine tool with which the viewer can enter this vast yet confined arena, instead of having it leap from the screen and into their eyes as most films of 3D ilk are wont to do.
And yet, for all the visual splendour garnering praise and Oscars aplenty, there appears to be a stronger element standing prominent yet woefully overshadowed by aesthetic accomplishment. Look not to the tiger Richard Parker, but to Suraj Sharma’s Pi Patel. This 19-year-old embellished impossible conviction through sharing company with an invisible tiger, atop a boat, inside a barren studio. Such a feat surely called for Best Actor recognition?
Those lavishing praise upon Pi for being the ‘nicest-looking’ of this year’s Oscar crop would also do well to acknowledge the comparatively non-existent aesthetic of its first 20 minutes. Perfunctory exposition and introduction of key concepts are performed with an emphasis on dialogue to carry ears and eyes from one shot to the next. As such, the viewer could very well turn their back to the screen for the entirety of this segment and still gather much of the general information.
It’s only when the bigger boat is blown apart and the little boat bobs up into the sprawl of the ocean that the film really begins in earnest. Even then, jaws are likely to be most agape when the sea and sky eventually alight by way of oxymoronic technically-manifested wonders of nature. These moments have been described as ‘majestic’, ‘masterful’ and ‘awe-inspiring’; indeed they may be, but whether their aesthetic grandiosity coalesces with the novel’s themes to produce a cohesive – and above all, uniquely cinematic – experience for the viewer, is very much open to debate.