I’m not exactly sure how it happens, but for whatever reason we all too often see years where two really similar movies get released in close proximity to one another all too often one completely over-shadows the other. Sometimes this happens because the more popular film truly deserves it (like when Tombstone trounced Wyatt Earp or when The Truman Show eclipsed EDTV), sometimes both films turn out to be crap and the competition between the two ends up being a race to the bottom (like when Dante’s Peak battled Volcano or Mission to Mars went up against Red Planet), and sometimes both films just end up cannibalizing one another (like when The Illusionist and The Prestige stole each other’s thunder and it wasn’t clear until both were out of theaters that the later was leagues better than the former). We saw another one of these fights earlier this year when competing variations of “Die Hard in the White House” played out. Both of those movies were bad (for the record, I preferred the genuinely meatheaded Olympus Has Fallen to the snarky nothing that was White House Down), but late in the year another one of these versus scenarios emerged, one that was a lot more interesting than these fights usually are.
Of course I’m referring to the completion between 2013’s two high-profile films in which lone individuals must survive being stuck adrift in an inhospitable environment with limited resources: Gavity and All is Lost. Both have more or less the same setup: Gravity is about an astronaut lost in space and trying to get back to Earth and All is Lost is about a sailor (Robert Redford) whose boat is punctured, taking out his navigation/communication equipment and then finds himself sailing into a storm. That these two movies came out at the same time is probably more of a coincidence than some of the aforementioned titles and their similarities might not be quite as apparent to anyone who’s just looking at their posters or something. Still, this close proximity is almost certainly worse for the relatively small All is Lost than the world conquering mega production that is Gravity.
As much as I want to let All is Lost live outside of Gravity’s shadow, comparing the two is just too tempting. Perhaps the most notable difference between the two (aside from the obvious) is that Gravity begins with two characters in the narrative (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), while All is Lost is a one-man-show from beginning to end. As such, the movie is almost entirely devoid of dialogue outside of a monologue at the beginning, an ill-fated attempt at establishing radio communication, and a few stray profanities. This is perhaps rather ironic given that director J. C. Chandor’s previous film, Margin Call, was a very talky film that almost felt like a stage play at times. One could almost see this film as a sort of over-compensation on Chandor’s part in order to prove to any of his doubters that he can do a whole lot more than film tense discussions about financial formulas. Throughout the film we see Redford’s character finding various different ways to survive his ordeal. One of the interesting side effects about the film’s lack of dialogue is that we often start to see the Redford character doing something and are sort of left in the dark about exactly what he’s doing until it’s done.
The film is, obviously, a pretty big showcase for Robert Redford’s various talents. He has to convey a lot through facial expressions and actions and it’s a testament to his work that you really do feel like you know what this guy is all about without him having to say much of anything. On top of that, Redford is really put through the ringer here and has to do a lot of stunt work. The elephant in the room, of course, is that Robert Redford it a 77 year old man. There’s been a lot of talk as of late about women being cast in horror movies (and perhaps Gravity) because audience (rightly or wrongly) perceive them as more vulnerable and want to protect them as if they’re your sisters, daughters, or girlfriends. I think Chandor is perhaps doing the same thing by casting someone who could potentially fall break his hip at any moment and who potentially reminds people of the grandfathers.
Some people have been viewing All is Lost as a metaphor for the 2008 stock market collapse, an interpretation that is perhaps invited because Chandor’s previous film was Margin Call. The argument, I gather, is that Redford’s character (a man of obvious wealth) was playing a dangerous game by going to sea alone (much as the people on Wall Street were playing a dangerous game by pooling sub-prime mortgages) and that the film depicts the moment where the best laid plans go to shit and the person who started it all needs to scurry around a right the wrong. The film is making some kind of statement about the free market (after all, the trouble all starts when Redford rams a shipping container filled with cheaply made sneakers) but if it is meant to be a parallel to the stock market crash it is a rather incomplete one. The Goldman Saches of the world did not only place themselves in danger with what they were doing; they placed millions if not billions of people in financial jeopardy with their recklessness, and there’s no parallel to that here.
For the most part, I’d say that All is Lost is a pretty damn good movie in its own high concept sort of way. It works just fine as a tale of survival and Redford elevates the material quite a bit with his performance. Whether or not it says a whole lot more than that… eh, maybe not. Of course I mostly view Gravity as a straightforward survival thriller as well, so that’s not a huge problem. Speaking of Gravity, I do think that at the end of the day All is Lost is destined to be viewed as the second most important film about isolated individuals surviving in the wild. Simply put: Space survival > Ocean survival. Still, Chandor has nothing to be ashamed of because he’s also made a very good little film. Now if he can just combine the dialogue of Margin Call with the Visual prowess of All is Lost and he’ll really have something to show.
***1/2 out of Four