The Life of Pi - review

An extravagantly decorated cake of a film with nothing inside but the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

The Life of Pi (PG)
dir: Ang Lee

Ang Lee is the eclectic’s eclectic, a Taiwanese director who has ranged freely between English period romance (Sense and Sensibility) and Chinese wartime espionage (Lust, Caution), martial arts swashbuckler (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and gay melodrama (Brokeback Mountain). In his 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi, Lee surprises us once more: I would never have suspected he could make something quite so facile.

The lion’s share of the screen time is given over to a tiger and a teenage boy stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean. The lad is Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), while the tiger, incongruously named Richard Parker, belongs to Pi’s father, who is transporting his zoo animals from India to north America when their boat is struck by a typhoon. Lee is nothing if not a director who knows how to wring every drop of tension from a set piece, and he peaks early in Life of Pi with a storm sequence that finds within terror a dislocated beauty. The underwater shot of a zebra paddling past Pi in the submerged ship, with the doggedness of an afternoon swimmer completing his laps, is so bewitching it hardly matters the trailer spoiled it for us months ago.

Once calm descends, Pi must simply survive. Viewers nostalgic for the innocent charms of Disney’s The Incredible Journey will find little succour. The film focuses squarely on the practicalities of how one might remain alive while confined to a lifeboat with a ravenous tiger.

Like Avatar, this is a movie that couldn’t be realised until the technology was available: you would get through a few crew members trying to extract from a real tiger the sort of performance given by a computer-generated one. But Lee overestimates the effect of his visual coups. The animals suffer in certain shots from that lack of heft that remains the Achilles heel of CGI. The seascapes and horizons have a deliberately synthetic, storybook quality but the marvels that pepper the voyage – a berserk wave of flying fish that whip the sea into a froth, or a majestic whale looming out of the ocean – feel self-consciously spectacular. Then there is the use of 3D. There’s a nice eerie effect when the camera gazes up from the ocean bed at Pi swimming so that he appears to be floating in the sky but the film’s colours are fatally dulled by the grey tints on our 3D specs; I kept peering over the top of mine to see how ripe the cinematography would look without them.

The late Michael Crichton once told me that he had been downhearted after seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day, that watershed moment in CGI, because he knew there would no longer be any barriers to what could be conjured up on screen. The dream, I suppose, would be that other aspects of the film-making process would be fortified: screenplays might become more complex, the camerawork innovative, to keep pace with technology. If this is the future, Life of Pi is a disastrous advertisement. David Magee’s screenplay is hamstrung by the banality of the points in Martel’s novel about the intersection between storytelling and faith. The film begins with the adult Pi promising he has a tale that will make anyone believe in God. It ends with a twist – well, more of a mild kink – that provides a new definition of anti-climax. The impression you take from Life of Pi is that of an extravagantly decorated cake with nothing inside but the wisdom of a fortune cookie.

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage