Saturday, August 31, 2019

"All is Lost": review

[WARNING: possible spoilers for this and other films.]

Having just watched "Arctic," I guess I was, in some ways, primed to see another survival film, and at my friend Charles's recommendation, I went for "All Is Lost" which, strangely, isn't currently available on Amazon Prime Video but is available via iTunes. "All Is Lost" is a 2013 adventure film directed by JC Chandor and starring Robert Redford and... well, it's pretty much just Robert Redford. I skimmed the movie-reviewer comments about this film after watching it, and many reviewers were impressed at how Robert Redford carries this film all by his lonesome. I made similar remarks about the incredible Mads Mikkelsen in my recent review of "Arctic," so I know where these reviewers are coming from. It really is impressive to see an actor dig into himself this way.

So I suppose it's inevitable, given how recently I watched "Arctic" and how similarly these two survival dramas play out, that I will focus on those similarities and spend most of this review comparing the two films. So let's get many of those similarities out of the way: both films center on one lone man against the harsh, merciless elements; both films contain very little dialogue; most important, both films end in almost the same way, which is enough to make me wonder whether "Arctic" took some inspiration from "All Is Lost."

The differences are in the details. "Arctic" gives us a frozen wasteland; "All Is Lost" is a drama that takes place at sea, somewhere near a shipping lane in the vast and unforgiving Indian Ocean. And while "Arctic" gives our hero a name, "All Is Lost" offers none: for us, he's simply "the man." However, whereas "Arctic" gives us almost no back-story about Mikkelsen's pilot Overgård, "All Is Lost" opens with an information dump about Robert Redford's protagonist: we hear a voiceover that turns out to be his inner voice as he's writing a letter to his family eight days after a random shipping container has slammed into his small boat, holing it just above the waterline and causing it to ship water every time the boat lists even a little. In the voiceover, Redford's character (I'll just call him "Redford" from now on so this doesn't become too tedious) essentially apologizes to his family for his arrogance, hinting at unknown and unexplored domestic problems. Later in the film, we see that this message ends up inside a bottle that is cast overboard and set adrift, at the mercy of Nature's caprice.

Much of "All Is Lost"—and this holds for all survival dramas—is devoted to the facing of problem after problem. If one message has been driven home to me about the nature of sailing, it's that going to sleep when sailing solo is always a risk. The movie actually begins with the banging sound of the giant metal shipping container as it crashes into Redford's boat, waking Redford up. Bad things seem to happen every time Redford goes to sleep; it's reminiscent of how, in "Pulp Fiction," bad things happen every time John Travolta's Vincent Vega goes to the bathroom. At one moment, though, Redford wakes up to a faceful of water after having knocked himself out against a support pole when seas are rough; it's tempting to frame Redford's misadventure as a series of rude awakenings.

With so little dialogue, "All Is Lost" relies very much on a show-don't-tell way of presenting a story. One recurring scene, which provides us viewers with both a sense of continuity and a sense of tension, involves Redford using a sextant to determine his position, which he marks on a chart. We see him drifting closer to a major shipping lane in the Indian Ocean, and our hopes go up with Redford as we assume that some ship will come by and see him. Two ships come by, one tantalizingly close, but neither one stops for Redford... and then our man drifts out past the shipping lane and into unpopulated waters.

I had a question, for a while, about whether we would ever see any sea life. The first half of the movie concentrates so hard on Redford's struggles to keep his ship afloat (and to survive punishing storms) that one could be forgiven for thinking Redford was navigating a huge swimming pool (trivia: the film was mostly shot in the same tank that had been constructed years earlier for James Cameron's "Titanic"—there are very few real shots of the actual sea in the movie). The sea life does appear, eventually, and of course, we get sharks. No maritime survival drama would be complete without them.

So that's the basic setup: Redford is on a boat; the boat has a big hole in it and is taking on water. Will Redford be forced to abandon ship? If he abandons ship, will he survive his ordeal? As with "Arctic," I don't want to spoil the outcome, so let's move to a discussion of the movie's merits and demerits.

"Arctic" came out in 2018; "All Is Lost" came out in 2013. I saw these films in the wrong order, and this is doubtless affecting my judgment because, ultimately, I think "Arctic" is a better film, but I can see how someone else who has seen both films might disagree, and that—the validity of my criticisms—is worth discussing.

First, the good: Redford is craggy and stiff, but he gives his character an air of competence, and also hubris: there are moments when it's obvious Redford should have done something differently to avert this or that disaster. And while Redford is the lone human on screen, the sea and the sky are characters in their own right, convincingly portrayed as alternately brutal and gentle, savage and calm. Thoughts of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea are inevitable. While much of the cinematography is actually artifice because most of the film wasn't shot on the open sea, the vistas we do see are impressive, especially the shots of those mean and brooding clouds as they march Redford's way.

One problem I have with "All Is Lost" is the choppy editing. Director JC Chandor takes what is essentially a quiet story about an old man's battle with the sea and, especially in the first reel, punctuates it with nervous, agitated jump-cut transitions that feel unnecessary. Then there's the matter of Redford himself. While Mads Mikkelsen's Overgård had several emotional scenes, primarily because his character had to take care of another character who was injured and dying, Redford's loner has no one to care for but himself. The information dump at the beginning of the movie leads us to think of Redford as a strong-willed, hard-bitten man who does things his own way, and it's only when he's finally faced with his utter helplessness before Mother Nature that he's able to confess his defeat on paper, along with an apology to his family. Toward the end of "Arctic," an exhausted and dying Overgård reassures the woman he's been helping that, "You're not alone. You're not alone. You're not alone." The compassion and selflessness of this man is poignantly evident. By contrast, and perhaps because of the nature of Redford's story, there are no moments of compassion in "All Is Lost." So after watching both films, I had to ask myself: whom did I root for more—Overgård or Redford? In the end, I think Overgård struck me as tough and humane, while Redford's character—assuming he were to survive his time adrift—would come back to civilization and revert to being the same arrogant asshole he had been before his boat trip.

There's also a scene in "All Is Lost" where Redford is vainly trying to flag down a large cargo ship by waving one of his few remaining flares. What struck me as funny was how lackadaisical Redford looks as he's waving, as if this isn't an emergency at all. The utter lack of passion about his own predicament seems wildly inappropriate. Ultimately, the ship passes by, easily close enough to see Redford, but it never stops. Redford's low-energy waving becomes even less energetic, and eventually he's just standing there with a look of disgust on his face as the ship recedes and his flare gutters out. So help me, I found that scene laugh-out-loud hilarious, and it really shouldn't have been. Whom should I fault for the sudden break in tone? My own warped sense of humor? The director's direction? Redford's acting? The scene really did strike me as unintentionally funny.

And that's the very thing I want to discuss: what if my complaints are missing the point, and the story has been written to be this way? What would a defender of "All Is Lost" say about my criticisms? If Redford's character is less appealing than Mikkelsen's Overgård because Redford seems colder and less sentimental, maybe that's simply because the character is written that way. And for that unsentimentality to prevail throughout the film is no sign of any inconsistency or poor writing. So what if I personally don't like Redford's character? Does this make the film worse than "Arctic"? What more could have been done, script-wise, to round out or flesh out Redford? Really, the answer is nothing. The writing is fine. And as for the unintentional humor of the flare-waving scene: Redford has been adrift for eight days. He's old, starving, and getting weaker by the hour. He's been pummeled by both sun and storm. His skin is starting to go from burned to cancerous-looking. Could it be that his insufficiently frantic waving is the result of the abuse his body has undergone?

We're mucking around on the borderline between the subjective and the objective, here. I'll grant that "All Is Lost" probably has as much objective merit as "Arctic" does, to the extent that one can even make objective judgments about art. But since a movie review is a showcase for a writer's opinions, I can only go with my gut feeling and say that, in the end, I didn't like "All Is Lost" nearly as much as I liked "Arctic." This isn't to say that I don't recommend "All Is Lost": I think it's a fine adventure when removed from a direct comparison with "Arctic," and Redford does indeed do a great job of carrying the movie. I read that Redford, at 77 when the film was made, also did most of his own water stunts, which is definitely something to respect. A lot of work went into this film. So, yes: while I might not appreciate "All Is Lost" as much as I could or should, I respect it, and I think the story it tells is compelling and watchable, barring a few twitchy stylistic gaffes from the director.


Charles said...

For what it's worth, I did take The Man's feeble attempts at waving the flare as indicative of his lack of physical and emotional energy. But it's also been a long while since I've seen the film, so to be honest there's a lot I don't remember about it. I just remember that I liked it.

Kevin Kim said...

That's probably the sane, charitable take. I'm just wired wrong.