For a technology that spent fifty years mouldering alongside curios like Illusion-O and Smell-O-Vision, the public perception of 3D has shifted massively in the past three years.
Widely acclaimed in the billion-dollar wake of Avatar, 3D’s value was irrevocably damaged by the cheap 2D-to-3D conversion jobs that followed: as dire blockbusters like Clash of the Titans and Alice in Wonderland sought to cash in on Avatar’s success, cinemagoers paid extortionate fees for dark, muddy 3D that felt like reading a bad pop-up book. By the time influential filmmakers like Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo) got a chance to use the technology, audiences were no longer interested.
At least until James Cameron gets around to making his Avatar sequels, this is probably how the situation will remain, with audiences either indifferent or hostile towards 3D. The technology is a victim of its own success: seen by studios as a balm against piracy, its omnipresence means that films using 3D in interesting ways are doomed to be ignored amidst the dozens of releases blandly employing the format.
In an ideal world—i.e., not this one—3D wouldn’t cost extra and only films that really benefited from the technology would use it. Falling into that category would be Ang Lee’s new film Life of Pi, which employs 3D not just for spectacle but as an important tool in establishing spatial relationships within shots.
An adaptation of Yann Martel’s middlebrow blockbuster, Life of Pi tells the story of a 16-year-old boy (Suraj Sharma) stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. As reflective as it is exciting, Life of Pi is one of the year’s most beautiful films.
While the source material affords Lee many opportunities for immersive visuals, from Pi’s whimsical upbringing in an Indian zoo to a leaping, bioluminescent whale, his use of 3D is most effective during the film’s shipwrecked middle section. Lee ensures that the audience is aware at all times of the boat’s size and the tiger’s proximity. As such, he remains a constant threat, careful framing establishing that Pi is never further than a lapse in concentration away from his own death.
In large part due to its impressive CG rendering, Richard Parker is a wholly believable living creature, existing without pity and powered only by animalistic instinct. Representing the untameable danger of nature, the decision not to anthropomorphise the tiger adds tension throughout, and is crucial to depicting his association with Pi—the film concerning their ever-shifting relationship as much as Pi’s struggle to survive. Focusing on this is also essential to avoiding the quirkiness that might have engulfed the film in lesser hands. There are islands of meerkats, and strongmen uncles, yes, but at the film’s core is a desperate battle for survival.
It’s impossible for the film about a boy and a tiger trapped on a boat to feel entirely realistic, especially considering the amount of computer imagery involved, so Lee instead opts to make the struggle biblical in its size and grandness. Entwined with Pi’s practical difficulties, the film retains the spiritual dimensions of Martel’s novel, capturing Pi’s quest to hold onto his faith after everything in his life has been torn away—not just to survive but to find a reason to do so.