It’s curious how some movies share plots/themes with others. Sometimes its clearly a case of rival studios making competing films that are different spins on the same story- Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are pretty much the same film but each with opposing approach (the former overly serious, the latter tongue-in-cheek fun). It happened years ago regards extinction event/deadly asteroids with Deep Impact and Armageddon (again, the former rather serious while the latter deliriously camp fun). Sometimes studios balk at launching expensive rival projects (usually one wins the box office and the other loses it) which results in one getting canceled (Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander project giving way to Oliver Stone’s film). But I guess its possible that films with similar subjects get made independently and ignorant of each other.
I don’t know if this was the case with All Is Lost, that its similarities were accidental, but the most immediate impression whilst watching J.C. Chandor’s film is the feeling that you’re watching Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity transposed to the ocean. Indeed I rather fear that many viewers will be distracted by the sense of deja-vu and dismiss All Is Lost as a rip-off and inferior. This would be unfortunate really, because All Is Lost is a great survival movie and character piece that benefits from its real-world setting and the lack of cgi spectacle that dominates so much of Gravity. Gravity, by its blockbuster nature, raised the stakes to huge levels and at times threatened its suspension of disbelief -indeed, in my own reading of the film, I believe the characters all perish early on and the ensuing events are Sandra Bullock’s near-death/post-death experiences similar to Tim Robbin’s character in Jacobs Ladder (there are simply too many happy coincidences/nearby space stations to be wholly realistic). Everytime Bullock pulls herself up on the shore at the end I expect to glimpse a little girl (her dead daughter) just on the edge of the final shot.
All Is Lost may be destined to forever suffer in comparison to its big-budget counterpart and sit in its very long shadow, but this would be a great shame. Both are great movies- its just that one is much quieter than the other. There’s nothing wrong with that, surely- maybe something superior even. All Is Lost is far less a blockbuster and much the better for it. Its a much quieter film, and slower-paced. Very often I reflected that the film reminded me of the films of the ‘seventies with its pacing and quiet thoughtfulness. There is hardly any dialogue at all, just a few muttered expletives really- it’s all about what we see, an exercise in Pure Cinema, far removed from how many modern movies explain everything through dialogue.The soundtrack is restrained, the (very good) Alex Ebert semi-ambient score mixed well into the superbly effective sound design.
Robert Redford is excellent- he plays a nameless mariner (simply named ‘Our Man’ in the credits) who awakens to find water in his cabin- he discovers that his yacht has been holed by a rogue shipping container during the night (so there’s another similarity to Gravity– in both films it’s junk that causes the ensuing drama; is there further meaning to that in both films?). In the middle of the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean, the mariner’s ship floats in complete isolation with its navigational and radio equipment ruined by the impact. The immediate danger seems minor, as he separates his boat from the container and starts makeshift repairs, but it becomes apparent that the yacht is dangerously harmed and following an ensuing storm the mariner’s attempt to survive becomes increasingly desperate. It’s a tale of survival against ever-increasing odds, of man dwarfed by, and at odds with, mother nature- the endless desolation of the ocean as indifferent and cruel as the cold depths of space are in Gravity.
We don’t learn much at all about our unnamed protagonist, except that as the events unfold he begins to re-examine who he is, what he has achieved and who/what he leaves behind should he die. In a similar way to the events of Gravity, it becomes a transcendent experience, the increasing closeness of death forcing a reappraisal of oneself. I had a sense that he isn’t a very nice guy, that while we empathise with his plight, he has a past unknown to us that wouldn’t really cast him in a very good light were it revealed (in one of his lowest moments he writes a last note and it is tinged with regret). It’s a tour-de-force from Redford, who incredibly was in his late seventies when this was shot, and this could well be considered one of his very best performances. His is the only character in the film, and Redford has to carry it completely on his own (in Gravity at least Bullock had other actors she could play off from). The mariners calm confidence is slowly chipped away by the unfolding events and his worn face starts to betray the quiet desperation he feels as his survival becomes ever unlikely. Its a great performance from Redford and a fine demonstration that not every leading man in a movie has to be young, fit and apparently unmarked by life (the one thing that bugs me about casting Keanu Reeves in John Wick, for instance, is that he hardly looks worn by the life of a hitman).
So if you can shake off the nagging sense of deja-vu when watching it, I’m sure you will be rewarded if you give All Is Lost a try. I’m certain it will eventually turn up on television with little fanfare and people will discover it (Redford himself was very critical of the films marketing on its theatrical release and its disc release has been similarly under the radar). Maybe it’s one of those films destined for reappraisal in years to come.