It’s impossible to watch the sailing drama All Is Lost without comparing it to two other recent survival movies, Life of Pi and Gravity. Like Life of Pi, All is Lost takes place in a small boat in the middle of an endless, unforgiving ocean, and like Gravity, it pits one person’s ingenuity against a sequence of mishaps that take them closer and closer to dying.
In All Is Lost, Robert Redford is an unnamed older man (referred to in the credits as “Our Man”) who is sailing solo through the Indian Ocean. Far from the closest land a stray shipping container crashes into the side of his 39-foot sailboat, tearing a gash in the side and letting water pour in. Not good: the first thing it pours over are the electronics, effectively ruining his radio and satellite phone. Even the bilge pump isn’t working because the battery compartment is flooded.
With his calm problem solving skills, Redford comes up with a fix to both patch the hole and remove the water in the boat, just to have a typhoon bring extraordinarily rough seas. From that point onward, the film is a balance of difficult situations and hobbled-together solutions as Redford tries in his stoic and unemotional way to keep things together long enough to be rescued. What choice does he have?
Modern container ships are highly automated and when you’re on a tiny lifeboat it’s just about impossible to draw attention to yourself, something that becomes abundantly clear when he crosses the major shipping route between Madagascar and Malaysia. Definitely a tough break, and it’s hard not to draw a comparison between the rugged individual versus the might of the great economic machine that plows ahead with nary a thought for anyone.
The film ends in a satisfyingly ambiguous manner, though I did find a some incongruity between the ending and the opening sequence. You’ll see what I mean when you see All Is Lost.
And see it you should. This is a tense, harrowing movie that offers up a fresh and surprisingly tense man versus the elements storyline. There’s virtually no dialog, there are no other actors who appear on screen, and we have no idea if anyone else even knows that Our Man is sailing across the ocean and has gone radio silent. Sufficiently tense that at times I had to consciously remind myself to breathe as I waited for the worst to occur.
Having said that, I will say that I felt Redford’s performance was somewhat underwhelming. With the Murphy’s Law sequence of events — it actually gets a bit silly at one point how everything, and I do mean everything, that can go wrong does — we’d expect more frustration and anger, more despondency than we get from the stoic sailor. There’s Oscar buzz for Redford’s performance in All Is Lost, but I don’t see it. Sandra Bullock in Gravity? Yes. But Redford in this film? Not so much, even though being the only actor in a film is an extraordinary accomplishment.
I’ll end by saying that I was taken by surprise by All Is Lost. It was far more compelling, far more frightening than I expected. It has its structural flaws but with austere direction by J.C. Chandor and superb cinematography by Frankie DeMarco it’s a stunning film, well worth your time.