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Life of Pi proves a mesmerising masterclass in 3D storytelling

Ang Lee uses 3D to its full effect, transforming Yann Martel's 'unfilmable' book into an epic poem for the screen.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
4 min read

Life of Pi, Yann Martel's 'unfilmable' adventure tale about the boy and the vicious pussycat who went to sea in a little white boat, has been ripped from its pages by Oscar-toting director Ang Lee, and thrust onto the big screen -- and in 3D, no less.

Lee has received praise the world over for his adaptation, but does the 3D format do the story justice? Life of Pi is a sprawling epic of a tale with real spiritual and allegorical depth -- almost like a story from the Old Testament or Greek myth -- and it's not a plot you would want to watch playing second fiddle to the medium in which it is relayed.

We're long past the stage now where 3D is a novelty, the main event, an attraction people will pay to see in its own right. The truth is, if it doesn't serve to creatively showcase and enhance the story, it's just a gimmick, and no more worthy of your money than that extortionate carton of cinema popcorn.

Spinning an epic yarn in three dimensions

Lee juggles the story and the format in true pro style though. All that extra space provided by the third dimension transforms the screen into an arena that can simultaneously host memories, imaginings and reality, while showing the distinction between them is not necessarily clear-cut.

Pi's story -- he's the lad in the boat -- is bookended by an interview with a sceptical visiting writer, which frames the tale with question marks. We're further tempted to debate the veracity of Pi's tale by the reflective, dreamlike quality of many of the sequences, particularly those in which he stares out to the horizon, or deep into the sea.

In the same way a split screen can be used to tell different stories, or the same stories but from different perspectives, there are times at which the full depth of the screen is used to show a blend of different foreground and background shots.

This is particularly effective when it's used to convey the passage of time -- when Pi is writing the tale of his shipwreck in his journal, for example, which is shown alongside a montage of shots depicting his activities across that period. The same is true of the melty scene transitions, in which the 3D seamlessly meshes the layers of narrative, enhancing the lyrical quality of the film.

Filming the unfilmable... and making it good

Life of Pi has been previously denounced as an impossible prospect for cinematic adaptation, and it's not hard to understand why. Even logistically it was going to prove tricksy -- a boy in a boat with a tiger? Try getting that past health and safety. The tiger though is a work of art, and there's no point at which you'd know that it was mostly stitched together digitally in post-production.

When it paces and pounces, unpredictable and angry, it's close enough to set you on the edge of your seat -- especially in one thrilling point-of-view shot, where Pi attempts to fend it off with a stick that nervously drifts into the screen. The same technique is employed (albeit to comic effect) when Pi reaches his hand down to clear his way through a sea of meerkats.

It's increasingly hard to justify paying out for a cinema ticket -- never mind for a 3D film -- and when you do, you want to be guaranteed a spectacle. And a spectacle this is. All the visual aspects that were most mesmerising about Avatar -- lingering shots of vibrant landscapes, phosphorescent phenomena, a captivating kaleidoscope of neon sparkly bits that look like a chemistry experiment gone right -- are here too.

In one magnificent scene, the ocean, aglow with thousands of jellyfish, is disturbed by a breaching whale. The beauty of the scene and real sense of the enormity and weight of the whale that's conveyed when it twists out of the water before slapping down upon it is enough alone to make you glad you didn't wait and watch it at home on a small 2D display.

In essence, Life of Pi is a brilliant saga with all the ingredients of a proper old-fashioned adventure story -- heartbreak, a shipwreck, a deserted island and a fearsome enemy who must be made a friend. It's not the kind of tale that ever needed to be put on the big screen to be brought to life, and was always going to prove a monumental challenge to the brave soul who took it on.

Ang Lee has done justice to the story -- all allegorical and spiritual punches intact -- and created something akin to an epic poem for the screen.

A second wind for 3D?

The careful and considered use of 3D in Life of Pi and the likes of Martin Scorsese's Hugo show a marked transition in its place as a storytelling medium. Critics predicted a decline in interest of 3D once the novelty of the format wore off, but perhaps now is its moment to shine. The fireworks are over, the technology is established, and so now is the time for artistic experimentation -- for 3D to prove it can be big and clever.

Next year promises more intriguing 3D releases -- notably The Great Gatsby. Baz Luhrmann's attempt to grapple with the great American novel will inevitably prove divisive, but if it works, if the special effects are successfully used to play out the nuances of story on the big screen, then it may just join Life of Pi in the non-too-crowded ranks of 3D films with real artistic merit.