Writer and director JC Chandor has said he was inspired to write All is Lost by a fatal car crash he was involved in aged 19. He and two other passengers survived, but his friend behind the wheel did not. Chandor described the event as “very, very intense.” This emotion has informed his film.
Gripping from beginning to end, All is Lost has a simple enough premise: Robert Redford is an unnamed sailor (although in the credits he is introduced as ‘our man’) whose yacht is holed by a floating shipping container in the middle of the Indian Ocean. From then on he struggles to keep the boat afloat and himself alive. As he is on his own, and he mercifully refrains from painting a face on a football to chat to like Tom Hanks in the famed survival movie, Cast Away, he barely says a word.
Our man’s one proper soliloquy is right at the beginning of the film, which is also near the end of the story, when he writes a message to post in a bottle, “I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right, but I wasn’t. All is lost.” So it is clear early on that unless something pretty miraculous happens all really will be lost. Refusing to use either dialogue or a narrator, unlike Life of Pi, is a refreshingly austere approach.
As we don’t know what our man is thinking or what he intends to do next, every action is unexpected. His expertise is obvious however, and he rarely has to pause to figure out what to do next. He never freaks out either. Of course, we do have some clues as to what is going on in his mind – etched on Redford’s craggy handsome features.
For the most part, our man is a picture of determination, although we don’t learn much about him beyond this burning desire to survive. It is a measure of Robert Redford’s acting abilities that even the most mundane tasks are completely absorbing. A meal eaten at the galley table gives us one of the few insights into his personality – here is someone utterly at home with a solitary life.
There are glimpses of hope, which of course are then dashed. The film is an exemplary exercise in the maintenance of sustained tension. The action is enhanced, but not exploited (there are no soaring strings), by the odd splash of droney organ music from the sensitive hand of Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Taking a leaf from the atmospherics of Titanic, there are some great sounds as the boat groans, creaks and sighs too.
I enjoyed All is Lost a lot – however, not everyone feels this way. The thing is, I am a landlubber. Yes, I can sail a dingy around a reservoir or tidal estuary, but this is very different to crossing an ocean by sail. My brother, a proper yachtsman, was driven round the bend by the film’s lack of veracity. Watching the film in sailing-mad Portsmouth, he reported people walking out of the cinema in disgust. Where I thought our man was doing everything in his power to survive, my brother wondered why on earth he wasn’t bailing out – and why was he on deck in a storm in only a t-shirt.
My brother even pointed out that it was obvious that it was filmed off the coast of California – the swell was all wrong and there was a tell-tale haze over the ocean. All is Lost was actually filmed in the tank in Baja California, Mexico where they filmed Titanic. If you can’t tell your oceans from your seas, you will probably not spot these flaws. In which case All is Lost may well be one of the most gripping – and most original – films you’ve seen for ages.
All is Lost is out on DVD and Blu Ray on Monday 28 April, 2014.
Read our feature on the Top 10 Survival Films here.