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.