ALL IS LOST Movie Review: Minimalist Survival Done Right
Forget your dueling asteroid movies or volcano films - I can’t believe that Gravity and All Is Lost are in theaters at the same time, since they’re basically the same movie. They’re both tales of solitary survival against impossible odds, and they’re both films that are narratively minimalist and are filled with other, deeper meanings. And the weirdest thing is that All Is Lost is the movie I wanted Gravity to be… and Gravity is the movie I wanted All Is Lost to be.
Robert Redford is a man on a boat. We know nothing about him - not even his name. We know he’s rich, because he’s all by himself on this very nice boat. We know he’s not a ‘real’ sailor because later on we see him reading a book to figure out how to use a sextant properly. But that’s it. There’s no background, no history, no family, no nothing. Just this man and his need to survive.
And that starts right away; the man is awoken when his boat hits a floating cargo container full of sneakers. It has put a hole in the side of his boat, and water is rushing in, frying all his electronics. He’s able to patch the hole, but he’s out of contact with the world, and pretty soon he realizes his troubles have only begun - some very bad weather is coming in, and he’s unprepared. Things just keep getting worse and worse, and the man wordlessly deals with it, doing whatever he can to survive.
Redford has maybe six lines in the whole film, one of which is a deep and heartfelt ‘FUUUUUUCK,’ a truly fitting reaction to the endless calamities that befall him. Shit just keeps getting worse and worse, and by the end of All Is Lost you’ll have a healthy suspicion of the open sea. Redford plays it all so well, dialing everything back just a little bit. Because this guy is all by himself he’s not projecting for anyone else, and Redford makes us feel the interior nature of his struggle. It takes a true movie star to spend most of a film’s running time silently engaging in sailing tasks and remain compelling. Redford’s that kind of a star.
Of course this isn’t just a movie about a guy engaging in sailing tasks. The script, by director JC Chandor, is deeply metaphorical. There’s a lot going on here, spiritually and politically - just consider that the movie opens with a sleeping white rich man being awoken when cheap Chinese goods sink his ship. Chandor doesn’t hit these notes particularly hard, and I can imagine many audiences watching on only a surface level. But everything that’s happening in All Is Lost means something, right up until the film’s strong final image.
The simplicity of All Is Lost is what I wanted in Gravity - less about the dead kid and the emotional arc and more about the basic moment-by-moment reality of staying alive. All Is Lost proves that your stranded protagonist doesn’t need to learn something in a conventional way, to have on-the-nose cathartic breakthroughs to still be worth watching, and worth rooting for. At the same time the thrill of Gravity is what I wanted in All Is Lost. Rather than operate as a high seas thriller, All Is Lost is Job-like series of bad situations that could accurately be retitled A Series Of Unfortunate Events. Chandor and Redford have made the ultimate WASP movie, a film where a white guy just stoically faces catastrophe after catastrophe and internalizes it all, and that doesn’t quite make for edge of your seat viewing. Towards the end of Gravity my reaction was “Oh no, I can’t believe something else is happening to her!” while the final act of All Is Lost had me saying “What now?” Gravity left me exhausted from the ride, All Is Lost left me worn down.
Of course the two films have different goals, but each could have learned something from the other. I think All Is Lost is the better film - it has more to say, has more depth and is more challenging - but Gravity is the more rewatchable movie.
That we have both these films at the same time is crazy. All Is Lost is the sort of unique, uncompromising movie that immediately undercuts the ‘They don’t make em like they used to’ complaints. They never made em like this, and we’re lucky they are now.