It’s surprising so few reviews of this film have compared it to another great recent film in a similar vein, ”Gravity”.
Both movies centre on a capable hero adrift in an unforgiving natural environment we were never built to occupy. There’s only the flimsiest of technological ingenuity protecting the hero from the surrounding abyss. When disaster strikes, he has to keep fear in check as he hacks his life-saving surroundings for the limited opportunities the tools can offer.
To a large extent both films are about the art and science of engineering. Whether Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is using her EVA to fly to a distant orbiter that might take her home, Our Man (Redford) is fashioning a manual hand pump handle out of a wooden shaft to get the water out of his sinking yacht. Both Gravity and All Is Lost are about using your brains to do what you can with what you have when things turn bad.
After Redford narrates a letter destined to go in a bottle when he’s on the verge of giving up, the film launches straight into the action. A sickening, splintering crunch rings out against a black screen. Asleep belowdecks, Our Man wakes with a shock to see water pouring across the floor. When he scrambles to the deck, he sees the culprit – a shipping container that’s smashed into him and is only now spilling shoes across the ocean.
The plot can be described as fairly episodic as he enacts one plan after another into action the deeper the trouble becomes. The water has fried all his electronics, so he doesn’t really know where he is and he can’t call for help, and the board’s taking on more water fast.
Early in the film his efforts are fairly workaday. As he hangs against the hull in a sling rig pasting a fibreglass sheet over the hole to keep the water out, director JC Chandor gives you an a surprisingly entertaining lesson in how sailing works.
But two giant storms make short work of everything Our Man tries, and his options are cut off one after the other until the desperation of what will be his last attempt to survive – lighting a fire in a rubber rescue raft. It’s something of a metaphor for the devolution of mankind and how helpless we really are without the tools we’ve fashioned to conquer the world around us.
There’d be no possible way for Our man to be alive thousands of miles into the ocean if not for the ropes, pulleys, gas burner stove and all the other technology around him, and when it’s all gradually taken away, he’s left with what was once our only evolutionary advantage.
Much has been made of the lack of dialogue in the film. There was no script, just a 31-page treatment, and Chandor’s camera simply watches a man, documentary-like, doing what he can with no histrionics, just a few sunken shoulders and narrowed squints. He’s a hero who doesn’t know there’s a camera watching him, so there’s no real need for emotion. There’s only steady, cautious action, the acceptance of death and nothing in between.
In fact the only time Redford really goes off the leash is in one of his five or so lines. One is the monologue of his letter, a couple are weak cries for help and one is a pointless SOS call – it’s only when one scheme too many fails that he leans his head back to scream ‘fuuuuuuuuck’ at the uncaring sky.
Chandor and Redford both handle the tension beautifully, and like Cuaron and Bullock did in ”Gravity”, they take their time sketching out the problems and the attempts at solutions. It gives the film a fairly languid quality, but the comparatively slow pace doesn’t mean it’s any less gripping.
”All Is Lost” is also a technical achievement. Shot completely in a tank, there must be plenty of CGI – during the storm sequences in particular – but the joins are hard to see. The sound design is also brilliant, every creak and groan from the wood, metal and ropes around Our Man putting you right there aboard the Virginia Jean with him.
Along with ”Gravity” (when it comes to space) ”All Is Lost” is one of those films with the potential to become a new Jaws. With its stroke of plausible bad luck and realistic peril, it might put a generation off sailing for life.