“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.”
— Our Man, All Is Lost
These are the first words we hear in All Is Lost, and they end up being some of the only words. They come from a letter that Robert Redford’s unnamed character writes near the end of the film. We don’t know who he’s writing to, or what he’s writing about. We don’t know anything about him. The extraordinary thing about this film is how little any of that matters. He’s just a man, “Our Man,” as the credits call him, trying to survive in increasingly dire circumstances. Against all odds, the film works. In fact, it does more with no information than most films this year have done with a lot of it. How does this film hold together, and how does it transcend expectations and become something truly extraordinary?
It begins with Redford. We never see another human being on screen, so he carries the entire film on his shoulders. Redford’s a real pro, though, and he never lets it show. There aren’t any “actor-ly” moments in the film. Everything is very natural. In fact, he makes the very interesting choice to show very little outward emotion, except in certain scenes. What would have come across as flat and lifeless in the hands of other actors becomes intensely watchable and naturalistic in Redford’s. When you think about it, it makes sense. When you’re sitting alone in a room, or walking around and cleaning or something, your expression is probably blank. You could be thinking a million different things, but you wouldn’t show it, because there would be no one to show it to. It’s a risky move. Played incorrectly, it would have alienated the audience, and you need them to feel like they’re right there on the boat with him.
If All Is Lost is about anything, it’s about work. There are countless shots of Our Man’s hands, grizzled and wrinkly, as he does everything he can to save himself and his ship. Similarly to Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave, Chandor doesn’t skim over the details of what exactly Our Man is doing. It never feels over-explanatory though, because of the lack of dialogue. Chandor will spend five minutes on a scene of Our Man doing something, and if you’re not an expert sailor, you may not piece together what his goal is until he achieves it. This is a major success of All Is Lost, and it was a risky move. If he overplayed his hand, the film would have been nearly impenetrable, and its emotional core would have ceased to matter. But with too much explanation, the film would have felt clunky and unnatural, and the emotional core would have been clouded.
As long as we’re talking about an emotional core, let’s move on to Gravity. The marketing for the film was terrifyingly stark. The poster was almost entirely black, with a tiny astronaut floating untethered into the distance. That’s the kind of film I wanted. A minimalist survival picture, with only one or two characters and very little dialogue, where the horror was more existential than physical. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, I really wanted Gravity to be All Is Lost. And when I walked out of the theater, I felt an incomprehensible sense of disappointment. Why didn’t this movie work for me? My head was swimming as I walked to the bus stop, and I spent the entire ride trying to go over what had happened. The special effects were brilliant, of course. The 3D was used exceptionally well, and Cuaron’s signature extra-long takes further added to the sense of immersion – and the terror, both physical and mental. On the surface, it seemed brilliant. That’s when it hit me. “On the surface.” This movie had nothing going on underneath!
I mean, yes, there was a whole story about Sandra Bullock’s character and her daughter, but that was cheesy and half-baked. And the dialogue, oh dear god, the dialogue! Where All Is Lost had the courage to go realistic and have its sole character say nothing that he wouldn’t have a reason to (in other words, nothing,) Gravity strands Bullock alone for most of its runtime but she doesn’t stop talking! There’s an argument to be made that in high-stress circumstances, people talk to themselves to help keep a cool head, but if the dialogue was better written then no one would need to make that argument. It’s a hollow movie, I thought to myself. It’s coasting on its technical achievements, but there’s nothing more to it than that.
So that lasted for the rest of the weekend.
The film didn’t stick with me at all. It was only a few days after seeing it that I really got to thinking about what it could have meant. I liked the idea of the film as a metaphor for depression and grief; Bullock runs from her emotions, almost as far as a human can go, and she needs to come “down to Earth” to get past them. Then something in my brain snapped. I spent an entire lecture filling more than a page with notes about the film’s visual metaphors and symbolism. There’s a lot of conception/fetal imagery. The most obvious one is the shot of Bullock curled up in the fetal position, floating in the “womb” of a space station. Admittedly, Cuaron holds on that shot for far too long. He overplays his hand, and pushes his themes on the audience rather than letting them figure it out for themselves. But the rest of his visuals are less overt. Note the way that the pods dock onto the space stations, in a very phallic manner. Note the burning pieces of debris racing towards the Earth, like sperm to a big blue egg. Bullock’s pod wins the race, of course. There’s sexual imagery all over Gravity. And the more of it that occurred to me, the more shocked I was at my initial reaction. This movie is a dense piece of art, I thought to myself. It uses its technical achievements to the advantage of the story, and it takes full advantage of the cinematic medium. I was singing the film’s praises for weeks.
And then, after a while, the shine wore off. I reverted to my original opinion, albeit a softened version. And then I loved it again. And then I didn’t. And back and forth. So where do I stand now? To be honest, I have absolutely no idea. I guess I appreciate its value as a work in the cinematic medium, and it’s exceptionally well-made, but it doesn’t really do anything for me on a personal level. I was expecting a very small-scale picture about the human experience. Gravity is the opposite.
All Is Lost, though? That movie hit me. Not in a personal way, because I’m obviously not part of Redford’s generation. His is the generation of the rugged individualist, mine is the generation of collective comforts. You could see All Is Lost as a eulogy for all the people like Redford. In the end, they go off into the unknown with no guide but themselves. Is this their downfall, or is it their greatest trait? The movie doesn’t have a clear answer, but there’s no reason you can’t see it either way.
In the end, though, Our Man doesn’t represent anyone. That’s because he represents everyone. He’s a figure of perseverance, of the will to fight in the face of impossible odds. Everything about his situation is dire. Even the title of his movie is about as bleak as a title can be. But he soldiers on. Never sad, never sorry. The apology that we hear at the beginning has no context, and we never see him speaking it. The movie can’t be about his connection to others, because it has to be about his connection to us.
That’s where Gravity ultimately loses me. The scope is massive, but the story is so small and personal. I really admire that concept, and I think that Cuaron succeeds in putting it on screen, but by making the story so small, you make it harder for some people to keep a grip on it. The more time I spent with Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone, the less I cared about her. The smart thing would have been to make her personal life totally insignificant, almost as insignificant as humanity is when compared to the endless cold void of space. But hey, you don’t get a $100 million budget with a story that nihilistic. I think it’s funny that Gravity has such a wide scope but such a tiny story, while All Is Lost has a very small scope and a universal story.
Are these films even possible to compare? The movie that I wanted Cuaron to make would’ve been impossible for him to make if he wanted to get through the studio system. Plus, the film that he did make still has a few layers to peel back, so more power to him. There’s no questioning his talent. And hey, you know what? I did get the Gravity that I wanted this year. I got All Is Lost. I do think that the latter is better than the former, but they compliment each other in unexpected ways. It’s so strange that in order to best explore the human condition, storytellers go to places where no humans can possibly survive. But survive we do. And in those moments, our existence, however inconsequential, is triumphant.
See Also: The estimable Soren Hough, my friend and colleague over at Movie Fail, did a great review of Gravity which I encourage you to check out via that link.