Nearly stripped of every expected convention, “All Is Lost” is so pure and simple that it does not look like an interesting movie at first. There is no back story or flashback for its lone hero, and its reticent aging hero is simply named “Our Man” in the end credit. We can only guess vaguely his personal motive for solitary sail during the tranquil opening scene while listening to his words from what may be his last letter, and he remains all alone by himself with no particular desire to talk with anyone including himself.
The movie shows us his 8 days of desperate but stubborn struggle to survive and to be rescued. When his yacht is around 1500 nautical miles from the Strait of Malacca, Our Man(Robert Redford) is awakened to find that the yacht has crashed with a floating metal cargo container which was probably fallen from one of those big cargo ships sailing around the Indian Ocean. One edge of the container has penetrated into the cabin, and, unfortunately for him, it hit the very spot where the communication equipments including his personal laptop computer were placed. Many things in the cabin are soaked in the sea water flowing through the hole, and, to his frustration, the yacht also has lost its electric power source due to the accident.
We see how he calmly tries to handle this trouble, and he turns out to be a very resourceful guy. He makes a makeshift waterproof membrane for covering the hole, and he pumps out the water from the yacht, and he also dries the broken communication equipments to get any possible chance for requesting rescue(I learned that it is wise to clean electronic devices with fresh water first if they happen to be soaked in sea water). Although it is not completely safe, the yacht looks fine on the whole despite the damage, and it seems he will be able to manage this disastrous situation at least for several days while searching for any help.
Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that he is completely alone and isolated on the big ocean which can be pretty ruthless to any vulnerable creatures, and his grim solitude makes other notable movies about the isolated struggles for survival in the vast landscapes look relatively, well, less lonely. The hero of “Cast Away”(2000) had a volleyball to talk with, and the hero of “127 Hours”(2010) had a digital video camera to play with, and the hero of “Life of Pi”(2012) had a tiger to deal with, and the heroine of “Gravity”(2013) had a fellow astronaut to stick with, but Our Man has no one to interact with from the beginning.
This setting may not look very compelling to you, but the director/writer J.C. Chandor willingly places many limits on his story while pushing it straight to his intended goal, and the movie seldom loses its steady pace while never feeling dragged. Stoically sticking to its hero all the time, it always gives us clear ideas of what is going on or what the hero is thinking during its wordless scenes, and the interactions between the hero and the perilous challenges he faces on the ocean are placed and handled well along the narrative: whether it is the sound and fury of tropical storm or the suspense from the alarming squeaking noises in quietness, it is always engaging, gripping, and terrifying to watch under Chandor’ deft direction.
Such a film like this certainly demands a lot from its lead actor, and Robert Redford, who is 77 years old at present and definitely deserves an Oscar nomination for his excellent one-man show performance here in this film, proves that he has lost none of his star presence as well as his underrated acting talent. Unlike Spencer Tracy in “The Old Men and the Sea”(1958), Redford does not directly communicate to us while carrying the whole movie alone(As far as I can remember, he utters only six or seven lines in the whole film), but he fully embodies an understated but powerful portrayal of a man under the extreme situation, and we willingly follow his character’s increasingly burdensome predicament thanks to his likable persona. Whenever we see Redford, his furrowed face fills the blank inside his character more than enough, and, whoever Our Man is, we come to sense that he is probably a prudent man who has seen and experienced a lot during many years of his life; this guy may survive if he keeps trying and, of course, is lucky.
He does try his best, but he is constantly reminded of his vulnerability and limits by the continuing challenges from the nature. He has a reasonable plan for getting more chances for rescue, and he has the resources for making that plan possible, but he cannot stop the desperation and frustration growing inside him as the worsening situation keeps cornering him. The movie gives a few moments of relief through the beautiful shots of the ocean which may remind you of those BBC or National Geographic nature documentaries, but its tranquility is only for us, not for him.
J.C. Chandor’ previous work was “Margin Call”(2011), which got him his first Oscar nomination, and that talky but intelligent film makes an interesting contrast with “All Is Lost”. While the former focuses on a group of various characters discussing and pondering on the impending global catastrophe to come upon them and their business world sooner or later, the latter focuses on only one character silently coping with his immediate personal disaster. Two films are quite different from each other, but both of them evidently show Chandor’s talent as an efficient storyteller who can hold our attention even if we do not see the whole picture; like we can clearly feel the sense of urgency hovering over the characters of “Margin Call” even though we do not understand everything they say in the movie, we come to sense the conflict between desperation and defiance inside the hero of “All is Lost” even though he rarely reveals his feelings or thoughts to us.
As New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott recently pointed out in his article, it is notable that we have frequently encountered the movies about individual survival during recent years just like when disaster films were dime a dozen around the 1970s, and “All Is Lost” is surely one of the latest examples. I wonder whether this trend reflects our anxiety toward the uncertainty of the 21th Century, the time when that familiar phrase “anything is possible” feels more fearful and palpable than before. Our human resilience has surprised and amused ourselves many times in fiction and reality, and that is sort of comforting to observe, but I sometimes wonder whether we can really survive this century because, well, anything can happen.
Whatever you think about that, “All Is Lost” is a first-class minimalistic survival drama, and it is a small but impressive triumph of story and acting under challenging settings. When I watched “Gravity” three weeks ago, I was reminded of how timid our existence is compared to that seemingly endless scope of the space, and now this movie reminds me that we are still timid entities even on the Earth. At least, as its rather ambiguous ending suggests, we are capable of trying hard even when all seem to be lost and we have no choice but to make an exit.
“…..but its tranquility is only for us, not for him…..”…….nice phrase…..your expression and control is changing……nothing so powerful as survival instinct….in the Grey Zone someone said people can do anything to live a little longer?
SC: We are always surprised by what people are capable of in the name of survival.