All Is Lost ReviewNovember 18, 2013
Is it just me, or have their been a fair number of survival films in theaters lately? Starting off with the huge commercial and critical success Life of Pi late last year, there seems to have been a slight resurgence in them. This year we have already seen the great success of both Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips (the latter more of an action thriller), and now we have J.C. Chandor’s small budget wonder All Is Lost. Coming hot off of his Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay nomination for his debut film Margin Call, can Chandor prove he is a filmmaker to watch with his latest piece of work?
All Is Lost opens with an old man (Robert Redford) sailing somewhere in the Indian Ocean aboard his sailboat the “Virginia Jean.” He awakens one day to discover that something has punctured his boat – thus resulting in it steadily being flooded – and then he walks on the deck to see that a shipping container has caused the damage. After moving away from the container, conditions continue to worsen for the aged sailor as he strives to fight for survival. His damaged ship, crazy weather conditions and isolation from the nearest landmass all contribute to the horrors that he faces on this perilous ordeal.
All Is Lost is a familiar story, as generic as they come. A man is stranded out at sea, he fights for survival, and there is some pathos along the way. In that vein, those expecting a completely original storyline will be disappointed, while some of the middle sections of the film also felt a little slow. However, what makes All Is Lost stand out from the competition is its narrative approach: one actor, and no dialogue. That is a risky move regardless of budget, but fortunately J.C. Chandor pulled this off quite well here. The compelling narrative roots Redford’s character in the audience’s emotions by authentically showing him go through a situation that anyone would be fearful of. However, there is also a great theme of the eternal conflict between mankind and nature underlying the picture. We are subjected to seeing this emotionally-damaged man attempt to fight the elements with every ounce of power he has. With the way that the story shows that conflict, it can then be said that he is a representation of this along with a curious insight into masculinity, so we are forced to literally watch how we struggle with power. When considering its sensationalist, fable-like structure, that thread makes All Is Lost somewhat of a traditional campfire story that has been translated onto the big screen. Cap all of that off with a powerful ending and a generally good sense of pace, and you have a movie that works surprisingly well.
The only actor I can talk about in this review is Robert Redford, for he is the lone player in All Is Lost. Considering that he is now 77 years old, it’s surprising that he would take on such a physically demanding role. Redford is excellent in this film, despite his age; he manages to successfully capture the emotional struggles through body language and physicality. He acts in a way that allows the audience to seep into his mind, adding an extra layer of thoughtfulness to the picture as a whole. In fact, much of the discussion on masculinity and the struggle between man and nature will likely be rooted in Robert Redford’s performance; not so much the screenplay, despite its subtle quality. All Is Lost is certainly one of the year’s more challenging ones to think about, but it’s a fantastic one at that.
J.C. Chandor’s direction certainly has a hand in this film’s overall effect as well. What is interesting about the camera work here is that no matter how wide, shaky or narrow the shot is, Robert Redford is in almost every single second of All Is Lost. It’s clear that Chandor wanted to emphasize the man vs. nature conflict at play here by constantly contrasting both the human and the environment surrounding him in the imagery, and he does this by framing both to varying degrees. He thankfully does not shove this thread down our throats though; in a sense, he just lets the audience stare at the screen and ponder, which made for an interesting experience to say the least. I do take issue with some of the visual effects, although this is more a fault of the budget. Chandor and his cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco do well to intensify the film’s numerous set piecess – while the film generally looks very good – but in other sequences such as wild sea storms it was clear that the effects were digitized. Overall, the aesthetics of this film are effective, but those effects still cheapen the experience to an extent.
While Gravity is still my favorite film of the year, there is no denying that All Is Lost is a very good survival movie. In its own way, it is both a companion and alternative piece to Alfonso Cuarón’s modern masterpiece. While the film has little in the vein of a backstory or even characterization for that matter, the story is solid due to a focused theme, strong imagery and a fantastic performance from Robert Redford. It will also be interesting to see what conversations stem from this film and its messages on power. In the end though, All Is Lost succeeds at one thing very well: proving that you sometimes don’t need dialogue to tell a story.