Beyond the sea: Why All Is Lost tops Gravity

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An ocean-bound Gravity, the emotional depth of JC Chandor’s transcendent All Is Lost makes it superior to Alfonso Cuaron’s survival sci-fi.

Over the weekend, we at Screen Robot collectively voted Gravity the best film of the year. Alfonso Cuaron’s zero atmosphere thriller was, in a year of disappointing franchise entries, undoubtedly the best blockbuster of 2013. It featured one of the best performances of the year, all the set-pieces of the year (the entire film is like one fluid action sequence) and unquestionably bore the FX of the year. Gravity is, then, one of the best survival movies of recent years. But Gravity isn’t the best survival movie of 2013. In the words of Yoda, there is another.

As Gravity used the extremity of space, All Is Lost turns to the Earth’s oceans to help draw a tale of man as plaything of nature

In JC Chandor’s remarkably assured follow-up to his 2011 Margin Call, Robert Redford plays a nameless mariner (credited only as ‘Our Man’) who awakes midway through a voyage across the Indian Ocean to find his yacht punctured by a rogue shipping container. In the middle of the sea, Our Man’s ship floats in isolation. With his navigational equipment ruined and his vessel adrift, Our Man is made to face the cruelty of Mother Nature in an increasingly desperate attempt to survive.

The sea in All Is Lost is an appropriate setting for writer-director Chandor. As Gravity used the extremity of space, All Is Lost turns to the Earth’s oceans to help draw a tale of man as plaything of nature. The expanse of the sea, like the endless blackness of space in Gravity, represents all nature and our universe: vast, invincible, indifferent, infinite. And in the midst of it all is one man – all mankind – arrogantly assuming he can best it, and know all of it.

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He is, of course, proven wrong. As in Gravity, All Is Lost takes its protagonist, a surrogate for humankind, and teaches him humility. All Is Lost, like Gravity, is comfortably a parable about how man should never lose touch with his intrinsic self. Our Man is stripped of all modern technology by the raging sea in All Is Lost, and is gradually forced back to an atavistic state, before finally he uses the breakthrough that separated us from the animals as a way to survive: fire.

All Is Lost shows us how far we’ve come as a species, while the end shows us how crucial our basic, innate humanity still is

The beginning of All Is Lost, situated aboard Our Man’s yacht, a sleek vessel full of electronic devices, shows us how far we’ve come as a species, while the end (no spoilers here) shows us how crucial our basic, innate humanity still is. Battered by the ocean as he searches for land or rescue, strong will forces Redford’s yachtsman onward. It’s a beautiful sentiment, especially relevant today: We cannot ever truly master the sea as much as we cannot master life in space, but we will always have our basic humanity to guide us forward.

Still: so far, so Gravity. Indeed, Gravity and All Is Lost are so similar in what they try to achieve and what they wish to say that they make a perfect double bill. They are, together, as monumental and invested with aeons of truths as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monoliths. But what distinguishes JC Chandor’s film from Alfonso Cuaron’s is how the former allows for so much more emotional engagement.

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Unlike Gravity, which attempts to shoehorn in some emotional depth with a backstory for Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, All Is Lost features subtler, more organic and fundamentally more affecting character work. A short opening voiceover is all the insight we get into Our Man’s life. On the page (the script is only 32 pages long and features no dialogue), he’s less an enigma than a placeholder for thematic exploration.

More organic and affecting than Gravity, All Is Lost features the purest character display of 2013

But Redford knows what we don’t – the character of Our Man and his many years have quite clearly been mapped prior to production, resulting in a portrayal of a man that works without words. It’s the purest character display of 2013, and he’s aided by one of the greatest scores of the year, up there with Gravity’s pulsing soundtrack, by hirsute singer-songwriter Alex Ebert.

As minimal as the rest of the film but affected by Chandor’s sense of scope, Ebert’s score is haunted, life-affirming, full of wonder – and all at the right points. It deepens Redford’s performance, acting as a barometer for his inner thoughts and feelings while also embedding itself into your memory. Main theme Excelsior will be reverberating around your mind after credits have rolled and you’re safely back home, having survived a 100-minute trial at sea.

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All Is Lost, though, is no Perfect Storm for geriatrics. Largely free of the cardiac-inducing theatrics that make Gravity so nailbiting (though the occasions that Our Man battles with sea storms are gripping), All Is Lost is actually a deeply spiritual film about silence, and our relationship with existence. The very fact that Redford’s hero is named Our Man suggests his story is meant as more – he is ‘ours’, whoever we imagine him to be.

All Is Lost is actually a deeply spiritual film about silence, and our relationship with existence

In fact, one of the main reasons we can connect so easily with All Is Lost is down to how little we know of Our Man – he’s resourceful and persevering, but so would we all be if forced into such a situation. It leaves us imagining and subsequently casting ourselves in his position. Along with Chandor’s immersive, detail-driven direction, the balancing act of Redford’s deeply felt but still-mysterious take on Our Man places us in the moment, alongside him.

This approach forces us to look inwards as the film progresses, just as Our Man does, as all the while our sympathy for the character grows. The movie is tantamount to film as religious experience, a unique sort of work we’ve already explored on this site. Gravity, though an exceptional, pioneering and – oddly, this is discussed less – experimental film (this article best explores the point), doesn’t inspire much feeling. Gravity inspires awe and offers a spectacular thrill ride, but All Is Lost offers the emotionally richer take on the human condition.

 

All images: FilmNation Entertainment

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