"Life of Pi," director Ang Lee's 3D adaptation of the best-selling novel, left the audience of movie exhibitors at the CinemaCon convention breathless on Thursday with its stunning, visually poetic shots of an Indian boy stranded on the open sea with a Bengal tiger.
The 3D images of the young protagonist (Suraj Sharma) battling a tiger, a storm and a school of flying fish did more to illustrate the ground-breaking possibilities of the technology than 10 "Amazing Spider-Mans" or "Men in Black."
"The real movie will be more moving, and more spectacular," promised the overly humble Lee from the theater stage, who has said elsewhere at the convention that learning how to shoot in 3D was a struggle.
Lee showed only about 20 minutes of footage of the film which hits theaters at Christmas, but it was enough to dazzle audiences, and hold out the prospect of both box office success and critical acclaim. If "Avatar" was 3D's "Birth of a Nation" than Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" may be its "Citizen Kane."
If all goes well, he just may have pushed the format forward in a sumptuous and exciting way, using the extra dimensionality to give movie making added emotional resonance, similar to the initial effect of Technicolor or sound.
Going into Fox's presentation, the talk was of Ridley Scott's outer space chiller "Prometheus" and Timur Bekmambetov's genre mash-up "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter." Exiting the Colosseum at Caesar's Palace, the buzz was swirling around Lee.
There are risks in bringing a film that is still unfinished to a high-profile event — witness the divisive reaction that greeted the higher frame rates previewed at Warner Bros. presentation of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" — but when something hits, it can hit big.
Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman kicked off Lee's footage noting that Lee's accomplishment was on par with the technological breakthrough James Cameron had accomplished with "Titanic."
"The medium skips forward again to create 'The Life of Pi,'" Rothman said.
Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") has always been acclaimed for his ability with actors, but his visual talents were on full display in the footage Fox brought to the trade show. The look is crisp but cinematic, like a fusion of 19th century painter Frederic Remington's work with a Bollywood musical.
Storms rage, waves crash, all to great effect, but the biggest thrill of all may be the closeup of Pi sobbing over the realization that he has lost his family in the storm.
Lee said that when he found the 17-year-old Sharma after 3,000 auditions, the movie finally seemed possible to make.
"When I read the book, I thought it was unmakeable," he said, noting that the book is about "adventure, hope, wonder, survival and faith."
His job, he said, was to use 3D "to put you in the emotional space of the characters."
He may just have succeeded.