It’s almost a bit of a shame that All is Lost is coming to us so soon after Gravity (thought it had its festival premier first). Both films are simple stories chronicling the survival of a human being in a harsh environment they were not meant to inhabit; in the former space, and the latter the ocean. There are inevitable (though favourable) similarities to be drawn between the two, the protagonist must utilise whatever resources they have to survive and escape, but their handling of many other characteristics is quite different.
After a brief opening voiceover (accounting for the majority of words spoken in the film), we flash back to 8 days earlier. ‘Our man’ (as the credits put it) awakens to find water gushing into his boat. He’s collided with a loose shipping container, puncturing a sizable hole in his hull (It is interesting to note that what triggers the struggle is a man-made factor). Immediately he must spring to action, and find a way to dislodge the container and patch up the hole. Making matters worse, the water has killed his power, leaving him with no way to communicate with the outside world. ‘Our man’s troubles though, are only just beginning.
The big difference between All is Lost and other survival films is the backstory, or rather lack thereof. We know absolutely nothing about ‘our man’. We don’t know why he’s out in the Indian Ocean all by himself, we don’t even know his name. Given this, his casting is a crucial factor. Robert Redford rarely acts in films nowadays, especially ones he doesn’t direct, but his appearance here seems totally apt. His role is a highly physical and emotional one, yet in his late seventies, the weathered Redford sells every moment. As his luckless sailor faces challenge after challenge, we are always with him, willing him to succeed. Unlike other leading solo film performances, such as Tom Hanks in Castaway or Will Smith in I Am Legend, Redford is not provided with a volleyball or dog to talk to, rendering the role virtually wordless. He gives an understated performance, conveying a quiet sense of boundless determination to see this through, that never feels like a stunt performance or piece of awards bait. Redford’s presence also adds an element of accessibility to the film, the vast majority of audience members will of course have associations when they see a veteran star like Redford on screen, but these allow us to connect to his character immediately, enabling the film to feel like both a mainstream thriller and a minimalist experiment simultaneously.
Writer/director JC Chandor, in only his sophomore feature, mostly presents the struggle in a matter of fact way, sticking with ‘our man’ almost constantly, ably demonstrating his methods of survival. Only on occasion does he step away and give us a wide shot, either from the air or from under the sea, but they always seem appropriate and beautifully framed. Chandor also ensures we experience some terrifying storm scenes as ‘our man’ does, putting us right there with him in, on or out of the boat.
One of the other factors used minimally is the music, All is Lost has potential for a grand score but hardly ever uses it. There’s nothing particularly bad about the brief pieces we here, written by Alex Ebert, but they boil down to essentially the same motif repeated over and over. I wonder if use of more music would have resulted in the film being even more emotionally engaging or proved distracting and clashed with the stark realism. Chandor’s opted for a ‘less is more’ approach to the whole film.
All is Lost was a risky endeavour, but one that Chandor and Redford have handsomely pulled off, crafting a thrilling yet elegant testament to the human spirit’s will to survive.