All is Lost (2013) Dir. JC Chandor

Storm at sea

Storm at sea

Hollywood must be in crisis! Within a few weeks of each other two films are released that are basically one handers, with so-called ‘A’ list actors but as there’s only one wage bill to pay that obviously saves a fortune. And both these films revolve around single individuals who have to find a way out of a life-threatening situation which was not of their making. In one (Gravity – 2013) an astronaut is stranded in space, in the other (All is Lost – 2013) a sailor has to fight for his life in the middle of the Indian Ocean. By far the better of the two is ‘All is Lost’.

Robert Redford plays ‘Our Man’ (why ‘Our Man’ and not ‘The Man’ I don’t know – perhaps to encourage us to feel some affinity to his plight?) who wakes up to find knee-high levels of water in his small yacht. He has had the bad luck of coming into contact with a shipping container and his yacht has come off worse.

(That’s something most of us never think about but it’s becoming an increasingly serious hazard for the small vessels that travel the world’s oceans. These containers fall off the huge container ships and the loss goes unnoticed or is just ignored as the ship would have no facilities to recover such an item in mid-voyage. The first I heard it was a potential hazard was when I sailed across the Atlantic in a small sailing ship at the beginning of 2013. Water may cover seven tenths of the planet’s surface but if the container has got your name on it then there’s little you can do.)

But Our Man is not fazed by this potentially fatal event. He doesn’t rush but assesses the situation and then calmly seeks to find a solution to the problem in a logical way. When he can’t lever the two apart he uses his yacht’s sea anchor to slow down the container and allow his vessel to separate. That was clever and I was impressed from the start but was even more so when he returned to salvage that very same sea anchor as he might need it himself at some time in the future. That thinking of the future whilst dealing with a problem in the present was the only way he was going to survive.

All electrical equipment has been soaked and his batteries have been shorted out so he has to hand pump the water out of the cabin. He gets out a fibre glass repair kit and makes a reasonable repair of the gash on the starboard side, just above the water line. He starts to dry out crucial items of equipment like his radio and charts and even the cushions on his sofa. The situation has been desperate but by quietly addressing the issues in order of their importance he has returned to some level of security and although certainly not out of danger he was now no longer about to sink. He even has the opportunity to cook himself a hot meal.

Then the bad luck just seems to be queuing up to meet him. A tropical storm hits but he survives that one but not the next that overturns the boat on two occasions but managing to re-right itself on both occasions. This is after he had had a shave, something which would be fairly low on the list of my priorities but presumably is in the film to give us some idea of the character of Our Man.

But the damage to the yacht is terminal and he has to leave the Virginia Jean for the life raft.

This is serious enough but Our Man has to be put through more trails before we reach the end. A lot has been made, in different reviews, of the voice over comments made at the very beginning of the film. These are from a note he writes and places in a glass jar when (8 days after hitting the container) he was down to his last rations – but he could live for days without food, considering he had a relatively secure, though meagre, water supply). But what are we to make of these notes. The thoughts of a person who believes they are on the point of dying are notoriously unreliable. And if we think about it most of us could dredge back into our past and remember things we would have preferred to have done differently.

The other side of it is that I’m not sure how carefully people listen to these voice overs before the action has begun. You assume that the story will eventually be unravelled through what appears on-screen. And – having read those words subsequently on the IMDB site – I don’t believe they really matter. There’s an obsession now about so-called ‘back stories’ in cinema, as if the medium has to cross all t’s and dot all i’s. But a half decent film stands or falls on how a particular story is unravelled before out eyes, not necessarily upon whether the protagonists are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Whatever his past this does not save him from yet more misfortunes – even having his lunch stolen by sharks.

His abilities are pushed to the limits. He gets thrown into the sea for a second time – something I’ve always considered near enough fatal if you are alone. The amount of physical and emotional energy expended would make getting back on board a little bit of a miracle. I’ve tried to get into a life raft and it’s not easy in safe and controlled situations. In the middle of an ocean, in the middle of a storm are certainly not ideal conditions.

He uses a sextant to make celestial readings to determine his position. The one he uses is a truly beautiful instrument (the card he discards when he opens the box indicating that it was a gift from someone before he left land) but it’s not something he is familiar with as he is seen handling it whilst reading a ‘how to’ book on how to use the sun to work out his location. For a first timer he seems to be remarkably adept when it might have been better if instead of this fine piece of engineering he had been given a modern GPS. They’re tiny, robust, give accurate readings and are waterproof.

The way that two large ocean-going ships just pass within metres of him is also a comment on modern shipping. Crews have been reduced to a minimum and it’s more than likely that only one person would have been on watch and quite likely would have missed even a red flare at night and certainly wouldn’t have heard him calling. Considering he speaks so little during the course of the film it’s strange that he uses the most words in the most fruitless circumstances. Calling out to a floating block of flats being propelled by a huge and powerful diesel engine must rank as one of the most futile of exercises.

The fact that there’s so little dialogue in this film makes it an interesting experiment in film making. His calm exterior is reflected in his language – or rather lack of it. It just seems to me however taciturn he might have been, however long he might have spent alone at sea, he would have come out with his one word obscenity of frustration a lot sooner than he did. Or perhaps I’m just speaking for myself.

Whether this film has a happy ending or not depends upon your interpretation of the last scene. Is it reality or a dream? Whatever the result I think you end up supporting Our Man in his struggle to survive whilst I would have been quite happy for Sandra Bullock to be still floating around in space.



Gravity (2013) – dir. Alfonso Cuarón


Soyuz TMA-7

Soyuz TMA-7

Beware: contains spoilers!

To get any enjoyment out of cinema you must have the ability to suspend reality, otherwise how can you sit through a couple of hours where light that has been shone through a piece of moving plastic is projected on to a screen. (OK, I know that most films are seen in digital format nowadays – but the principle still remains.) But if it’s upon me to suspend reality it’s up to the director to not take me into the realm of fantasy when we are looking at something that is purported to be real. What you can get away with in a cartoon is not so easy, or credible in a film where the aim is to get us to empathise with the characters portrayed. By not abiding by that ‘agreement’ between film-maker and film-goer I believe Cuarón breaks that unwritten contract in ‘Gravity’.

You have to give it to the Americans, if nothing else they’re persistent. More than 20 years after the ‘fall of the Soviet Empire’ they make a dig at the Russians as being the cause of the disaster that is this film. The initial premise of ‘Gravity’ is that in wanting to get rid of a satellite quickly the Russians send up a rocket to destroy it therefore spreading shrapnel which hurtles around the planet, causing the disastrous sequence of events which Sandra Bullock will have to surmount.

Now why a country that was the first to send a man-made satellite into orbit, the first to send a man (and then a woman – long before the west considered doing so) into space, which ‘lost’ the race to the moon (but then that was just a vanity affair as witnessed by the fact that the Chinese Rabbit on the Moon at the moment is the first item from Earth to have arrived there in more than 40 years) but continued with more long-term, potentially beneficial space projects including MIR, the basis of the present International Space Station, and also which is, at present, the only country that can keep the ISS supplied by both occupants and material to that station, should be so reckless as to create a mega-disaster and threaten ALL space projects, of the past and the future, is totally ludicrous.

So the basic premise is a non-starter.

Next we have the character of Ryan Stone the, strangely genderless, name of the scientist played by Sandra Bullock (and one of the only two characters we see alive in the film). Now this film is in the past, a bit unusual for space films. It’s in the past as this crew of US-based astronauts arrived in space on one of the space shuttles, but the final mission of these craft was made in July 2011. I make a point of the past as if we were talking about incidents set in the medium to long-term future film-makers can get away with having all types of people in space. Just look at the bunch of misfits on the Nostromo in ‘Alien’ (1979).

However, so far, the numbers of humans that have gone, are going and will go into space is very small – and they are a very select bunch. I would have thought that if the choice was between ‘the most brilliant scientist in her field’ – as is Stone – who failed crucial aspects of her training (as she admits when she says that she was never able to dock a module in the simulator) or someone who was perfect at the tasks they would need to perform in space but only second best in their field then the latter would prevail.

On top of her ineptitude she is also a psychological disaster. We learn that her young daughter had been killed and she still wasn’t over it – many parents state that they never get over it. Yet we are expected to believe that NASA would send this virtual time bomb into space.

The next ludicrous premise revolves around her breathing. Once disaster hits and she is floating around in space she panics (she probably failed that part of the training as well) and as people often do on Earth in such circumstances she takes quick, short breaths. This can lead to hyperventilation and the first aid cure on land is to breathe into a paper bag (but where you get one of those nowadays is a bit of a dilemma). It’s taken me a long time (one of the reasons for the delay in posting this review) to get a definitive answer to the question ‘Can you hyperventilate in a situation where someone is breathing a high oxygen mix?’.

For a long, long time she is taking in so much oxygen that her reserves are losing a percentage point every minute. Surely this must have an effect on the brain? Surely she would have passed out and that would have been the (fortunate) end of the film? But she needs to use up her oxygen to propel her into jeopardy. By the time she gets into a spacecraft and ‘safety’ she is holding her breath. I didn’t time it but much, much longer than 90 seconds to 2 minutes which, I understand, a normal healthy individual can achieve. Or perhaps its just that everything which stretches credibility in this film just seems to go on forever.

She gets inside the ISS with her last breath and we get the obligatory striptease which has been in every ‘woman in space’ film since ‘Barbarella’ (1968) passing through ‘Alien’ along the way. This minor erotic interlude also provides those who see the representation of birth in this film as she virtually adopts the foetal position after she strips off her spacesuit. The other aspect of the birth analogy come from the fact that there are a lot scenes where humans are attached to each other of spacecraft by ‘umbilical’ chords, some which save, others threaten.

Her presence causes a fire – there’s no other explanation if not – and she runs away to the one remaining Soyuz. She is prevented from escaping immediately by one of the unfriendly and not nurturing umbilical chords, the chords of the prematurely deployed parachute, so she has to make a space walk to disconnect cables which would have been sufficient to tether a ship the size of the Titanic. She does this with a tool remarkably similar to one she was using earlier to disconnect a panel from the Hubble Telescope, a sort of modern equivalent to Dr Who’s sonic screwdriver. By now the debris that had destroyed the said telescope, the space shuttle and the rest of the crew, was coming around for a second bite of the cherry. And a huge bite it takes of the ISS, apart, that is, from Stone and her Soyuz. (Technically this is a masterful piece of cinema and watching it in 3D you instinctively flinch when this metal comes towards you.)

By now she should have realised that she was invincible, having survived such major disasters, but it’s quite the opposite – she gives up because she runs out of petrol. Her aim was to get to the Chinese space station where she hopes there’s a craft that could possibly make it through Earth’s atmosphere and have a parachute that will drop her gently to safety.

Considering this is supposed to be a ‘feminist’ film (not least as she is now the only character on-screen, George Clooney having sacrificed himself so that she might live) it’s strange that she only pulls herself together (after switching off the oxygen supply when she lost hope) when he comes back to her in her delirium and tells her that ‘nobody up there can harm her’ – that’s presumably not taking into account the ever-increasing amount of debris that is growing exponentially as virtually all of all countries’ satellites in Earth orbit have been reduced, or soon will be, to scrap metal.

In her dream he mentions the landing engines and that source of fuel. So even though she kept on crashing on the simulator on Earth (how could such an abject failure in training be allowed to go into space?) the knowledge is there to enable her to get to her only hope of getting down, the escape module at the Chinese station – obviously with a lot more hyperventilation and the obligatory, all-American, emotional speech full of platitudes and clichés.

But credibility us stretched to the very end. Considering that the planet is 8 tenths water and desert (not counting the Antarctic) it is astounding that she splashes down in shallow, fresh water in a temperate zone. Yet even with this amazing stoke of luck she ends up flooding the capsule (surely they’re constructed to be stable if landing on water however inefficient and incompetent the crew members?) and after floundering around in space she has to fight for her life on her home planet.

With her luck what was surprising was that she did not find a winning lottery ticket for Euromillions, the National Lottery (both with multi week rollovers), together with El Gordo and the Irish Sweepstake.

But she did, in a way. The whole of the planet would be in total disarray after the carnage that had been taking place a few hundred kilometres above her head. ALL satellites would have been destroyed, communications would be down throughout the planet, people would be rioting on the street due to the fact that couldn’t connect to their chosen social media, commerce would have ground to a halt, stock exchanges world-wide would be paralysed. It would be the end of life as we know it and yet she still gets a message that Houston has picked her up by radar. Come on, let’s be real. The last thing people would have been doing was try to track someone almost certainly considered to have died with all the rest in space.

The fact that this travesty of a film is even being considered for an Academy Award later this year shows how bad 2013 has been for cinema. If it was to win anything significant would just go to emphasise that the Academy has no appreciation of real cinema and such ceremonies merely exist to perpetuate the moribund idea of a Hollywood which has long passed its sell by date.

However, the tear drop was impressive (just before her almost attempt at suicide) and if the film is seen at all it should be in 3D and on a big screen.