A work of art that impresses as a competent example of minimalistic storytelling, yet still feels too cold and distant from the audience to be appreciated on a deeper level.
In All is Lost, a nameless man (Robert Redford) finds himself in a dangerous place in the middle of the Indian Ocean, after his yacht - dubbed the Virgina Jean - collides with a drifting sea container. The old sailor demonstrates a strength and resourcefulness that defies his age, as he manages to repair his prized vessel's damaged hull (despite having limited supplies to do so) and pumps vast amounts of floodwater out from the main cabin.
With his navigation equipment and radio having been ruined during the accident, the enigmatic seaman must rely on his knowledge of the sea and instincts in order to survive. Who will ultimately walk away triumphant, in this primal battle between humankind and nature?
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), All is Lost is a harrowing tale of survival at sea along the lines of Alfonso Cuarón's space thriller Gravity, but without the revolutionary visual style and unconventional shooting techniques. The narrative beats are similar, yet the script forgoes the philosophical aspects and emotional components that are present in Cuarón's film. What you end up with is a work of art that impresses as a competent example of minimalistic storytelling, yet still feels too cold and distant from the audience to be appreciated on a deeper level.
The film's greatest strength lies with its ability to make you feel as though you too are trapped at sea alongside Redford's character (wryly referred to in the credits as "Our Man"); those with a strong ocean phobia, beware. Thanks to the shot choices made by Chandor and his frequent cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco - combined with underwater footage that was captured by Peter Zuccarini (Life of Pi) - the film generally maintains the illusion that Redford is trapped thousands of nautical miles away from land, with the exception of a few necessary CGI backdrops (during an ocean tempest sequence) that nonetheless have a distinct "budget look."
All Is Lost flows along at a good pace (partly due to Pete Beaudreau's editing), yet it also finds time to pause and reflect on the setting every so often; though, maybe not often enough. The ocean just never fully comes alive as a character, because the story is told from too much of a clinical perspective, even during the moments where various natural elements (storms, sunsets, aquatic life) are being expressed in what is intended to be poetic fashion. Credit where credit is due, though: the film concludes on a visually lush image - yet with little foundation to build upon, the final effect feels kind of empty.
Chandor's script has a clean three-act structure and wastes no time when it comes to the progression of the narrative, but it also shares some blame for the film's shortcomings. In essence, every object and/or obstacle that Redford's protagonist crosses paths with can be interpreted as a metaphor for something; yet, their meanings often tend to be too obtuse or under-developed. Because we know so little about who "Our Man" is - and what the world around him means to him personally - the symbolism tends to be either too broad or too subtle for its own good.
Redford is no stranger when it concerns him having to hold the screen on his own, having done it before as far back as 1972, in Jeremiah Johnson. The 77-year old actor does an excellent job of handling the physical challenges of his role here, but the years of experience implied by his actions and weather-beaten skin just aren't enough to make "Our Man" a fully-rounded character.
As the lead, Redford also handles the stoic mannerisms of "Our Man" with ease, yet he struggles during the interludes between the action/thrills - where he's meant to communicate deep thought and/or emotion with little more than a simple facial expression - and thus, when he does turn to desperation, it doesn't have as strong an impact. It's difficult to invest in someone whose soul never really shines through, beyond the audience having a desire to not see this hard-working man killed.
Taken as a whole viewing experience, All Is Lost is like watching a movie adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea; that is, one where the story has been stripped of its richer thematic substance and shot in the style of a visually clean, yet mostly unfeeling documentary about what it's like being stranded in the ocean, alone. Call it a noble-minded, but only partly successful experiment - one that will probably be a riveting moviegoing experience for some, but an unsatisfying trip across the ocean for others.
In case you're still undecided, here is the trailer for All Is Lost:
All Is Lost is now playing in a limited theatrical release. It is 106 minutes long and Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.