By sheer happenstance two films have arrived in theaters lately sharing a common theme and to great acclaim. Both have plots in which the major character tries to survive after a catastrophic accident, one in outer space and the other on the open seas. Since both are innovative after their own fashions, they make for an interesting side-by-side comparison. As I will try to explain, “Gravity” is fairly commonplace despite its gadgetry—both in front of and behind the camera. Meanwhile, “All is Lost” is a major achievement even though it is a throwback to the early days of film: there are no more than a couple of dozen words spoken throughout the entire film, even though there are sounds in abundance such as thunder and the crunching noises of a yacht coming apart at the seams.
I went to “Gravity” with high expectations. The director was Alfonso Cuarón, a Mexican whose last film “Children of Men” I held in high regard even though I had problems with the dystopian themes that originated with the original material, a P.D. James novel. With a 98 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes accompanied by blurbs that are the stock and trade of professional film critics (“Nerve-racking, sentimental and thrilling, Gravity honors terra firma even as it reaches for the stars with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney” was how the Denver Post’s Lisa Kennedy put it), I hoped for at least a couple of hours of escapist fun and a “2001” type ecstasy at best. Escapist fun is about the best way to describe it unfortunately.
As most people know, physicists—including Marxmail’s technical coordinator Les Schaffer—warned that much of what happens makes no sense. The most common complaint is that the satellites between which the astronauts hopscotch are far apart. This did not worry me since I long ago learned that a film has its own internal logic. Once you buy into the plot, a function more of dramatic than scientific logic, you go along for the ride. It is as Marianne Moore once described poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads.”
My real problem was with the early departure of George Clooney, who I expected to survive as Sandra Bullock’s helpmate in outer space. As characters, they played off well against each other. He was a kind of elderly frat boy telling stories and making jokes while serving as the mission’s seasoned flight commander. Bullock is a dedicated and somewhat overwhelmed scientist assigned to fix the Hubble telescope. My expectation was that they would provide for some lively dialog until the bitter end but he is killed off early on, leaving Bullock on her own to figure out a way to make it home safely. How can you make a film with a single character trying desperately to push the right buttons in order to survive?
Ironically this was exactly the premise of “All is Lost”, a film that I regard as the finest from Hollywood that I have seen in five years at least and that deserves the 93 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and even more. Although this review will not contain any spoilers, my best advice is for people who trust my tastes in film is to not read any further and simply go see the film straightaway. The less you know about it, the better your enjoyment.
Still with me? Okay, let me proceed.
“All is Lost” opens with Robert Redford (his character’s name is never identified) napping in the cabin of his yacht that is somewhere in the middle of the ocean—which ocean is not important to the plot. After waking to the sight of water rushing into the cabin through a breach in the hull, he climbs to the deck and discovers the cause. The yacht has run into the sharp corner of a container that has obviously fallen from a cargo ship. This evokes both a globalization version of the Titanic as well as the accident that sets the plot of “Gravity” into motion, the detritus of a Russian satellite.
Except for a single word uttered by Redford midway through the film—FUCK—that is cried out after he discovers that his water supply has been compromised by salt water, there is not another spoken word. Despite this, the screenplay that was written by the director J.C. Chandor is worthy of study by any film student aspiring to make the exceptional film. Although a screenplay is most often about the dialog, there are directions that help clue the actors and allow the director to flesh out the work even when not a single word is being said. Like “All is Lost”, the great screenplay by William Broyles for “Cast Away” contains long stretches in which Tom Hanks says nothing. If you go to the source, you will find directions for a scene that is very close to what transpires throughout “All is Lost”:
Waves break against the reef. With his paddles Chuck maneuvers the raft toward the cut in the reef. Boom! The wave crashes, the water surges through the cut, then recedes with a whoosh.
Chuck watches, times the waves, paddles like mad. He’s committed. SCRAPE goes the first barrel, then the second, riding the receding wave. He’s out!
But the next wave is already surging forward. It smashes the raft against the reef! Coconuts and foodstuffs hurtle off the raft!
The barrels cushion the impact. The raft tilts, spins, but stays outside the reef! The ropes holding the jugs of water break! The water sweeps overboard!
Ultimately what makes “All is Lost” far more compelling than “Gravity” is the ability of J.C. Chandor to make you identify with his character. None of us (I assume that astronauts are not the sort of people who visit this blog) have ever been in outer space but nearly everybody knows what it is like to be in a sailboat out on the ocean. Once Redford’s yacht has been compromised, he makes every effort to stay afloat using the means at his disposal. When his GPS system stops functioning because of exposure to salt water, he resorts to an old-fashioned sextant that he learns to use from a book he fortunately kept on board about navigating by the stars. For those who have seen “Gravity”, you can’t help but be reminded of Sandra Bullock working her way through the manuals on the Russian space station, trying to figure out a way to use the Soyuz space capsule to return home. The difference is in the context. One can relate to Redford’s predicament while Bullock’s dwells more in the realm of fantasy. Everybody knows what it is like to be under water; nobody knows what it is like to be jetting from satellite to satellite miles above the planet earth. Because Redford’s struggle to survive is more recognizable, it is more emotionally involving even if less spectacular visually.
Although any competent actor could have been a substitute for Redford, this is a film that he was made for. Like the fisherman in “The Old Man in the Sea” who was obviously a stand-in for Hemingway himself, Redford is a stand-in for Redford—a man who has had a long and distinguished career as an actor and independent film impresario. With his weather-beaten face gazing in disgust at the container that has disabled his ship, it is not hard to extrapolate from this his attitude toward much of modern society—from the despoliation of the oceans and forests to the tendency of Hollywood to foist its commercial junk on the unsuspecting filmgoer.
You also have to appreciate what an undertaking it was for the 77 year old actor to perform many of the arduous stunts seen in the film, from swimming under water to climbing the 65 foot mast of the yacht.
For J.C. Chandor, Redford’s Sundance Film Festival marked the auspicious beginning of what is likely to be a great career. In 2011 the festival premiered his “Margin Call”, a film about the 2008 financial crisis that I described as follows:
The movie has a crackling electricity and very fine dialog rendered in a realistic manner. Throughout the entire film, there is no attempt to offer up a back-story or anything that would make the characters sympathetic. The net effect is like looking at an aquarium full of piranhas and hoping that the glass doesn’t break.
That being said, none of the characters in the film is “evil” in the sense that Gordon Gekko was in “Wall Street”. They are simply doing their job. That is actually what makes the film so powerful. It is not interested in exposing crooks but in putting the financial system under a microscope. That, after all, is what Karl Marx had in mind when he began writing Capital.
At this point in the writing of the article, I turned to the press notes for “All is Lost” that were distributed at the press screening yesterday and was pleased to learn that I was on the right track:
Chandor says the sheer simplicity of the story—and the filmmaking challenge it presented—drew him to make the film. The story has echoes of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and as Dodson describes “ it’s an existential action movie about one man lost at sea, fighting against the elements and himself.”
Finally, a word or two about the sounds that are heard throughout this “silent” film, at least understood as the absence of dialog. The film score is by Alex Ebert, the leader of the indie folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. I can’t remember hearing a score so adept but as unobtrusive as this one and will leave it at that. There’s also the sound engineering used for a wide variety of effects, from that of a yacht coming apart at the seams to ominous distant thunder. I usually don’t pay much attention to this component of a film but in this case I have to tip my hat.
“All is Lost” is on the inside track for Best Picture and Best Actor of the year for our upcoming NYFCO awards meeting and I can’t imagine anything that will surpass it.