All is Lost, the survival-at-sea movie starring Robert Redford is now available on DVD. Though it earned only one Academy Award nomination (for Sound Mixing), it’s a film worth seeing if you can ratchet down your expectations. It’s easy to see why two other 2014 survival stories – Gravity and Captain Phillips (both of which I reviewed in previous blogs) were nominated for the Best Picture Award. Though thin on story line, Gravity provides the audience with a simulated outer space experience through amazing technical effects. You’ll have to look hard to see where the scenes in All is Lost have been transformed in the post-production laboratory. There’s nothing manufactured about the ominous nimbostratus clouds on the horizon, though the increasingly larger fish that gather around Redford’s lifeboat have the clear look of low-tech animation. All is Lost has none of the good guy-bad guy plot or American triumphalism that marks Captain Phillips. We conclude that the sailor is a solitary American, given that the few words that he speaks are in the American dialect, but it would be just as easy to think of him as a Dutchman or an Australian or anyone with enough wealth and leisure to take a 40 foot two-master out into the Pacific, “1700 miles off the Sumatran coast.” Ironically, while Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips commands a mid-size cargo ship operated by the international conglomerate Maersk, Redford’s solitary sailor is overlooked by an enormous Maersk ship that powers right by in broad daylight.
This is about as pure a survival tale as you might see; it’s stripped away of any deep psychological diving or interpersonal strife or larger geo-political themes. The old high school English textbooks would place this story squarely in the “man vs. nature” category. From the moment that an adrift cargo container pokes a three foot hole in the side of his sailboat (which causes the cabin to flood and knock out all of the communication equipment), the sailor must use his wits to stay afloat and alive: he repairs the holes with fabric scraps and a glue pot; he rigs up a makeshift desalination box that provides him with potable water; he gives himself a quick lesson in using a sextant so that he can plot his course, much like space scientist Sandra Bullock who must learn the spaceship’s operating manual once partner and mentor George Clooney becomes a speck on the intergalactic horizon.
While the film trades in conventional survival-at-sea tropes, they are not overplayed. Yes, the sailor does put a message in the bottle, but he’s pretty well past hope when he throws it overboard. And yes, a three foot fish that he’s caught on a makeshift line is devoured by shark just as the sailor is about to pull his dinner into the boat.
There are a number of fictional predecessors for this movie, American “boys’ stories” that are found in most anthologies of American literature. Stephen Crane’s 1897 novella “The Open Boat” draws on his own experiences capsized off the coast of Cuba. Told with cool detachment by a correspondent, one of four occupants of a life boat, it documents the ebb and flow between hope and despair of this crew. It presents us with an unfair world – the strongest member of the crew doesn’t survivor – and even posits a notion about the meaninglessness of the universe. Rage against a capricious god is not possible once you realize that there is no god, capricious or otherwise. All is Lost, a near-silent film (Redford’s lines can easily be contained on a single page), offers us little sense of the inner life of the sailor, only what we might be able to infer from studying Redford’s craggy and minimally expressive face. A glance at a beautiful Pacific sunset or an ingenious solution to a technical problem produce the same stoical look. Yet, only once did I want the animated tiger from Life of Pi to miraculously arrive in the boat to emotionally arouse the sailor.
Hemingway’s 1952 novella “The Old Man and Sea” comes to mind, not only because the lean cinematic vocabulary of All is Lost matches the spare prose of the tale about the unlucky Santiago, a Cuban fisherman. Although aging Santiago is after his first catch in 85 days while Redford’s sailor seems to be interested in an around-the-world-under-sail accomplishment, they are both concerned with the disciplining of the self. Santiago’s encounter with treacherous sharks and his return to shore with an eviscerated catch demonstrate one of Hemingway’s key values: grace under pressure. Though a modest fisherman in a small skiff, Santiago is no less noble and courageous than the resplendent and death-defying Spanish matadors that Hemingway celebrated. The sailor too is a Hemingway code hero: he understands well the laws of the open seas and quietly accepts his fate. He knows that nature mocks human ambition. He earns his dignity through competence, tenacity, and the suppression of his ego. Perhaps we can say the same J.C. Chandor, the screenwriter-director who has offered us this unspectacular but watchable movie.