Looks like we’re seeing a weird month of action movies featuring what you might call Stranded Superstars. First it was “Gravity’s” Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in deep space. Then Tom Hanks got captured on the high seas in “Captain Phillips.” Now comes Robert Redford adrift in a ruined sailboat in “All is Lost.”
The latter gives Redford his first opportunity in a long while to show off his considerable strengths as an actor, stunt performer, movie icon and all-around rugged personality. It’s a tour de force unlike any you’ll witness again any time soon.
Yet despite all those critical hosannas coming out of Cannes where the film premiered, the movie stalls in the doldrums. For its writer-director, J.C. Chandor, makes two critical decisions and both backfire.
First, he turns “All is Lost” into a one-man show. Then, he makes his protagonist as generic as possible — no back story, no inner life, not even the smallest detail to tell you why the man is risking his life in the Indian Ocean in the first place.
The movie begins with a Redford voiceover saying in a note designed for anyone who finds it that “all is lost,” that he fought to the end to save himself from the sea but luck didn’t go his way.
Cut to eight days earlier, where the beginning of the end comes with an alarming accident. An unnamed man aboard a 39-foot sailing yacht in open water — the credits refer to him simply as “Our Man” — is jolted awake one morning.
He discovers his boat has collided with a shipping container left floating on high seas. He frees the yacht and repairs the damage to his hull as best he can. But the electronic equipment has been ruined by sea water that poured into his cabin.
Thus the man unwittingly floats into the teeth of a fierce storm. The boat even briefly capsizes at the movie’s 45-minute mark. He survives but the sails have been torn away and the boat is a wreck.
Eventually he must abandon ship for an inflatable life raft with limited supplies. As the sun reddens his already leathery skin, potable water dwindles to almost nothing and sharks circle. He realizes that — all is lost.
So what’s the problem?
Hemingway did something along this line in his novel, “The Old Man and the Sea.” Robert Bresson made a similar existential film, “A Man Escaped,” about a prisoner in a Nazi camp who spent every waking moment in his daily routine plotting his escape and therefore his survival. So there’s a precedence here.
A comparison of “All is Lost” with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is enlightening. Cuarón made certain two survivors battle nearly impossible odds in outer space. So in their conversations you understand what the options and strategies for survival are. With “All is Lost” you can only guess as the film contains no dialogue.
Thanks to a Herculean performance by Redford this is often clear enough, but you do wonder why he isn’t a little more prepared. He has to read manuals far too often for a guy who feels confident enough to go to sea all by himself. And most of the emergencies seem to catch him napping (often literally).
So you’d really like to know what the hell he thinks he’s doing. Who is this guy? You empathize for any human being staring his own mortality in the face. But he’s just that — any human being.
Which brings up the second point. Unlike Bullock’s astronaut or any good character in dramatic literature, he has no internal conflict to parallel the external ones.
For a character to have rich complexity, he must resolve an inner conflict so he can solve any outer conflicts. Maybe Redford’s character has unconscious desires: Is he perhaps suicidal? Is he trying to prove something to himself? Or to others?
Chandor gives you no insight into any of this. It’s just this guy getting beaten up by the sea. Or to be accurate, by the writer.
For the movie develops a clear pattern right from that opening bump. Every effort by the man will go for naught. Every effort is worthless.
Chandor throws bad breaks at his character the way the Lord threw bad luck at Job. Yes, life can do that to an individual but movies aren’t life but an imitation of it.
So the screenwriter, as God, decides to throw luck, good or bad, at a character to make a moral point or to illustrate something about the world we inhabit. The only way to evoke doubts, fears and emotions in true art is through inner conflict at least as great as the outer conflicts.
There is absolutely none here.
Knowing that every effort will ultimately fail, the minutia of these efforts — the nuts and bolts of tasks the man undertakes — become tedious for the viewer rather than fascinating as they are in “Gravity.”
In “The Old Man and the Sea,” of course, Hemingway’s prose, his old man’s inner voice, clues the reader in on the past and present and wherein lies the meaning in the symbolic struggle between Santiago and the giant marlin.
In his film “A Man Escaped” Bresson gives the prisoner an inner conflict in which he must decide whether or not to kill his new cellmate in order to escape. The film is also about the revolt against despair.
But “All is Lost” is a mere stunt. It prides itself on containing no dialogue. That seems to be at times its only point.
The character doesn’t utter the word “shit” until over an hour into the movie. I certainly should have said this word much, much earlier. When he finally screams an even more defiant and profane word, it’s a wonder it doesn’t scare off the sharks.
There are minor faux pas as well. The movie clearly is determined to maintain a single point of view, that of its only character. But Chandor violates this by taking his camera underwater to show schools of fishes and later circling sharks, things to which Our Man should be oblivious.
The music comes infrequently as you’re often left to hear the sounds of the sea as Our Man sweats out his survival. But Alex Ebert conributes an occasional score that falls somewhere between choral and dirge.
This and the diversity in Frank G. De Marco’s fluid cinematography are the best things about “All is Lost.” Other than Redford’s standout performance, that is.
I suspect this will be enough to achieve box-office success for “All is Lost.” No one deserves it more than Redford, who has championed indie films for half a lifetime despite never appearing in or making any. Now he has.
Opens: October 18, 2013 (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Before the Door Pictures, Washington Square Films
Cast: Robert Redford
Director/screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Justin Nappi, Teddy Schwartzman
Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Laura Rister, Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Howard Cohen, Eric D’Arbeloff, Rob Barnum, Kevin Turen, Corey Moosa, Zachary Quinto
Director of photography: Frank G. DeMarco
Underwater director of photography: Peter Zuccarini
Production designer: John P. Goldsmith
Music: Alex Ebert
Costume designer: Van Broughton Ramsey
Editor: Pete Beaudreau
PG-13 rating, 107 minutes