Sunday, 20 July 2014

All Is Lost

Something called “Sortie en mer” is doing the rounds on the Internet at the moment. Part of a campaign to get people to wear life jackets, the French-made “drowning simulator” game uses live-action video to put you in the shoes of a man stranded in open water. It’s unwinnable, which makes it pretty harrowing – all you can do is prolong your character’s struggle, making his inevitable death slower and more painful and watching in horror as he loses his fingernails due to the sheer cold.

All Is Lost, J. C. Chandor’s 2013 experience movie starring Robert Redford, feels a bit like a movie version of “Sortie en mer”. It’s not as outwardly disturbing (it doesn’t need to be), but the feeling of hopelessness – of being lost at sea with no one to help you – is there in spades.

Whilst sailing the Indian Ocean, our man (that’s actually what he’s called in the credits) wakes to find a wayward shipping container has pierced a large hole in the side of his boat, and it’s taking on a lot of water. To make matters worse, all the vital electronics on board – like the radio and GPS – are waterlogged and have stopped working. Despite that, things actually look pretty promising at first, as our man surveys the situation, manages to pump out most of the water, and even carries out some cursory repairs. But a massive storm hits not long afterwards, and it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

What follows is our character’s eight-day struggle for survival, as he comes up against every imaginable obstacle from dehydration to sharks. Thankfully, he’s pretty resourceful – no matter how bleak things looked, I always felt like there was a slim chance of him getting back to civilisation.

What’s great about this film is that it doesn’t try to do too much. It has one character, one cast member, a very small handful of spoken lines… and that’s about it. The film doesn’t try to crowbar in a backstory for our character, and even manages to steer clear of clichés like “let’s have him look at a family photograph and cry; it’ll make him more relatable”. The lack of dialogue is equally unusual: most films would have had the main character vocalising his every action, or at the very least muttering expletives in a gravelly Batman voice, but our character barely says anything for the film’s entire hour and forty minutes.

This refreshing approach is bolstered by Redford’s fantastic acting – we root for and relate to our man because we can see the fear and frustration in his eyes, not because he’s a handsome, God-fearing war veteran-cum-action hero with a stunningly beautiful, American Dream family. Or, like, Tom Cruise or whatever.

The same goes for the movie’s visuals and soundtrack. There are no crazy action setpieces and, other than right at the end, the film never really tries to be “stunning” or “beautiful”, or do anything particularly visually impressive. Special effects are used tastefully and realistically, rather than for spectacle. It’s conservative by Hollywood standards but it really works in this case, creating a nice sort of “fly on the wall” feel. Music is used equally sparingly, underscoring certain scenes just enough to give them a lift without you ever really noticing it.

There are a couple of minor issues with pacing – the need for something to always be happening means our character sometimes behaves recklessly, climbing about on deck in the middle of violent thunderstorms and the like. I was left silently willing him to act like a sane human being, like in the Scream movies when everyone inexplicably runs upstairs to get away from Ghostface. And, a couple of times, he literally just does the same thing twice in a row. I’m not sure what the filmmakers were going for, but to me it felt like unnecessary padding.

Overall, and in spite of these minor issues, All Is Lost is a fantastic film that manages to tell its story in a stark, conservative way without ever feeling boring or dragged out. Redford’s superb acting makes our stranger instantly relatable: I defy anyone not to be moved and, at times, thrilled by his story.

All Is Lost gets a solid 4/5.


Mike Lee

All Is Lost at CeX

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