The Gravity of the Situation, by Josh Long
I know you. I know what you’re thinking. You look through the “coming soon” films on the Apple trailers website. “All of these big budget movies with robots and superheroes – they’re just not my cup of tea,” you think, setting down your cup of tea. “What I want is something smaller, something with little to no dialogue, something with a pace that matches real life.” You ponder to yourself, and out loud you say to your computer screen, “why can’t they just make a movie about Robert Redford on a boat?” Put yourself at ease my friend – your time has come.
This is an easy one to summarize. Robert Redford, on a boat, in the Indian Ocean. A series of unfortunate events puts him further and further into peril. Dialogue is sparse; the shooting script was 30 pages long. So the question on everyone’s mind is whether those 30 pages can be stretched into a 107 minute film (with one character) and still keep the audience’s attention.
The film has three core resources with which to do this. The first is the story. Since All is Lost is about one man’s struggle against the elements, it’s going to be unable to escape comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Unfortunately for the former film, the latter has much more happening in a shorter run time. Developments in Gravity come early and often, while All is Lost favors a much slower, realistic pace. One approach is not necessarily superior to the other, but most movie watchers will be unable to shake the comparison. In a different movie year All is Lost might be seen as exciting, but this year it is doomed to constant comparisons with a faster, flashier cousin.
This isn’t to say that there’s no plot development in All is Lost. There is a constant motion to the story, developments that raise the stakes for “Our Man” (as Redford is credited). They are simply slower and less dramatic. In a film that is plot-based, this leaves viewers prone to lose interest.
The second resource is character. Robert Redford portrays the film’s sole character. While the fall release date positions the performance as Oscar-bait (perhaps successfully), it isn’t really that type of performance. Redford plays the part as stoic, unaffected with a few moments of emotion. There’s no real background on who he is, why he’s there, what he wants. His struggle against nature is intriguing, but in a “what would I do in that situation?” sort of way. We never root for him because of who he is – at points it is difficult to root for him at all. Not because we dislike him, but because he becomes more like a specimen than a person with whom we can engage.
The third resource is visual spectacle. Massive storms, crashing waves, underwater photography and the barren expanse of ocean all serve as exciting foci for cinematic visuals. All is Lost uses them well; the photography both entrances us, and accentuates the hopelessness in “Our Man’s” situation. The visuals tell the story as much as the script does, maybe more so. There are a few moments where it seems obvious that we’re watching CGI storms, but they’re not bad enough to detract from the rest of the film.
Given these three key resources to keep audiences interested in a slow and sparse film, the filmmakers don’t go far enough to keep us on board. The visuals are exciting, but there is little opportunity for them to wow us, and sections in between seem to drag, considering our lack of emotional connection to the character. I hate to make the comparison again, but through much of Gravity I did not consider the plausibility of the settings and events – even though there are some obviously unrealistic elements. During All is Lost, I found myself constantly questioning the reality. This is not because it was less realistic, but because I was given so much more (perhaps too much) time to breathe, relax, and remember that I’m just watching a movie.
While the pace may be too slow to keep most viewers involved, All is Lost does have an approach that stands in stark contrast to the slew of big-budget, star-studded, CGI-driven films available at today’s multiplexes. If you’re looking for something different, an easier pace, a more realistic approach, you’ll find it here. If you’re looking for a movie where a man’s man like Robert Redford spends two hours doing something manly like sailing a boat by himself through the ocean, then man oh man, are you in luck.