This has been quite a year for survival stories. Between Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, and now, All Is Lost, it seems society has self-preservation on its collective mind. Not that collections of people have much of anything to do with these stories. Mostly, all these stories feature protagonists alone against whatever elements are assailing them.
(The high profile of these stories is notable, but the relative popularity of survival stories themselves isn’t necessarily remarkable. So many of Western society’s stories end up being, essentially, survival stories. They’re often about one woman or man struggling mostly alone against impossible odds to survive. Stories about communities are rare in the modern, Western world. Watch Rio Bravo.)
All Is Lost is perhaps the purest of these survival tales. Astronaut Ryan Stone has every woman’s fantasy, George Clooney, to keep her company. Solomon Northup has other slaves even if they aren’t much help much of the time. Our Man, as he is named in the credits, in All Is Lost has no one to help him at all.
All Is Lost is engaging to the degree that you enjoy the details of surviving in a derelict boat on the open ocean. The film is detail oriented, staying in close on Our Man (Robert Redford, grizzled, handsome, and more able at 77 than I am at 29) at all times. This claustrophobic camera work makes the story less symbolic of humanity’s struggle to survive, period, and more about humanity’s struggle to survive on a boat. There are no shots of the boat tiny on the endless sea. There is almost always simply the man, his boat, and a salty spray of sinister sea water.
Metaphors, in a story like this, are important. Almost all of us will never solo pilot a small yacht across the Indian Ocean. We need more than ropes and riggings to relate the story to our lives. Gravity‘s universal touch-points (no pun intended) – Dr. Stone’s embryonic rest, her need for air, her first steps – make her more relatable than even her hackneyed, grief-riddled backstory. All Is Lost‘s few similar moments, such as when Our Man learns to read the stars, when he figures out how to get water, and when he writes a note to his family, are too few to be as resonant with us. (Aside – my favorite universal touch-point in a survival movie can be summed up in a single quotation: “I… have made fire!”)
I also particularly liked the few shots from under Our Man’s boat in which an entire ecosystem of ocean dwellers has developed beneath his hastening demise as if in his death, life is thriving, even if it isn’t his own. The fact that I can put that symbolism so easily into words speaks to the story’s shallowness.
Ultimately, All Is Lost isn’t bad. It’s enjoyable for what it is, and there are certainly worse choices you could make at the theater right now. I imagine All Is Lost will be remembered like we remember The Illusionist as that other magician movie that came out the same year as The Prestige.