Monday, December 23, 2013

"All Is Lost"

 2 / 5 

Having spent a sum total of less than a day of my life on board a water vessel of any sort, I'm the last person who can criticize the technical veracity of All Is Lost, but the nameless character played by Robert Redford doesn't seem the brightest of sailors.

There he is, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when his sailboat is hit by a stray cargo container.  Water floods into the boat, destroying the communication equipment and leaving Redford's stalwart character, unhelpfully named "Our Man" in the credits, all alone.

Maybe what he does next is exactly what any experienced sailor would do, but it seems unlikely.  He tries to patch up his boat, tries to get his ruined radio to work, and eventually ends up jumping into an inflatable life raft as his vessel sinks beneath the surface.

All Is Lost tries to be two things: a blatant bid for an Oscar for a film legend, and an allegorical ode to the indomitability of the human spirit.  It fails at both.

It bungles the Oscar opportunity by failing to give us an idea of who this mystery man is, and although Redford inarguably can hold attention on screen, even he can't create a character out of thin air.  All Is Lost gives us absolutely no information about why "Our Man" went out to sea in the first place, what he's trying to find (even if just a spirit of adventure), or if he feels lost and adrift in his own life.  There's a single clue: His boat is called the Virginia Jean, but what does that mean?  Is it his wife?  His daughter?

The movie opens with a few lines of indifferently delivered narration.  They're just about the only words uttered in the movie, with the exception of one expletive screamed to the heavens about an hour in to the film.  But they provide no insight into this character -- and without it, the film is purely a technical achievement.

On that level, it's interesting enough, though hardly unprecedented.  Movies as varied as Open Water, Life of Pi and Jaws have made the sea more menacing, majestic and compelling, and the long central sequence in which "Our Man" and the Virginia Jean are tossed about at sea look a bit too much like they were shot in a studio with a fire hose trained on Redford.

As for the allegory: We get it.  Never give up on life.  There are always possibilities.  Hope is never lost.  All that good stuff.  They're important messages, they can be rendered beautifully.  But without any clue of who we're watching, we're left with no idea why it matters.  Of course "Our Man" will try to save himself at every junction, because what would be the point of making a movie about a man who just gives up?  It would be an awfully short movie.

As it is, All Is Lost feels like an awfully long movie, and seems to struggle to find ways to show us how desperate "Our Man's" situation is.  There are a lot of shots of "Our Man" eating canned beans.  And yet, a few scenes later, there he is cooking up a meal on a propane stove.  He goes days and days trying to cope without water or food, never realizing until it's too late that there's a fishing line and probably a decent number of fish right under him.

The guy can't navigate by the stars, but lo and behold he manages to recover an expensive, unopened sextant from his sinking ship and use it to plot a course (on a free-floating raft, no less) into shipping lanes.

The problem with All Is Lost isn't that these unlikely things happen, it's that you're aware they're happening and you focus on just how unlikely they are.  In the fantastical, joyful movie Joe Versus the Volcano (which otherwise bears no resemblance to All Is Lost in any way), Joe and his beautiful girlfriend are on a raft in the middle of the ocean when Joe sees the moon rise, falls to his knees and thanks God for his life, even if it has set him adrift.

I kept waiting for some similar scene to happen in All Is Lost -- a moment that conveyed the existential nightmare of being lost at sea, wondering if anyone back home even knows you're out there.  I wanted "Our Man" to realize the foolishness of his ways, to seek contrition, to find peace in his impossible situation.  This isn't that movie, not even close.

All Is Lost proves that even at 78 years old, Robert Redford can still command the screen like nobody's business, but that even an actor of his underrated, formidable achievement can't be compelling without material.  There's nothing here, nothing at all, just a nameless man who has to figure out a way to survive.  How they managed to make that so uninspiring is beyond me, but they did.

There's some beautiful underwater photography in All Is Lost, and it's quite literally impossible not to find some compelling drama in the plight of a man drifting in a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hoping to be rescued.  All Is Lost is never boring, exactly, it's simply as aimless as that little life raft, always threatening to deflate and sink, and somehow staying above the surface, though just barely.

Viewed Dec. 23, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset Cinemas


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