When it comes to man vs nature adventures, I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign if every now and then you find yourself rooting for nature. It’s certainly a sign something’s gone seriously wrong if the man is Robert Redford.
JC Chandor’s follow up to Margin Call (2011) is a bold, experimental take on the tried and true lost at sea survival saga. On one hand, it must be acknowledged that making a movie with only one character who has no name, no backstory and virtually no dialogue is admirably radical. On the other, there’s the undeniable fact that All Is Lost drifts into dullness. That’s the thing about bold experiments: they don’t always work.
The legendary actor gives a measured, magnetic performance as a 1 percenter (identified as Our Man in the credits) sailing solo across the Indian Ocean-why not?-on his 39 foot yacht. Thank god the guy’s played by Redford because, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve always had limited patience with characters who get themselves into completely unnecessary life and death jams.
It drives me crazy-whether they’re scaling inhospitable heights, poking their noses into foreign political conflicts or doing any other damn fool thing there’s not a single sensible reason for doing when they could’ve stayed home with friends and shared a good movie or bottle of wine. Into The Wild. 127 Hours. Shackleton. Scott of the Antarctic. Really? I can’t think of one good reason to go to the South Pole, much less to die trying. Can you?
But I digress. The character awakes one morning to find a metal shipping container the size of a boxcar has collided with his craft, ripping a gash in its side just above the water line. In the process, his radio’s been rendered useless. In a related story, the handle to his bilge pump has gone missing and the boat is taking on water. The first thing we learn about him is that he’s a cool customer. Rather than panic, he sets about checking off tasks on an increasingly urgent to do list.
He mixes up a batch of fiberglass and patches the hull. He whittles a piece of wood to serve as the pump handle and cranks away. He rigs a system to harvest pitiful sips of drinking water from condensation on a piece of stretched plastic. He’s movie history’s most charismatic Eagle Scout.
For the first half hour or so this can suck you in. Redford’s a treat to watch on the screen again. He’s so good you can practically see him think. After awhile, though, it can simply suck. A little. We’ve been here and done this before. A lot. Maybe not in the same minimalist style but, between Castaway, Life of Pi, The Perfect Storm and Old Man and The Sea (fun fact: Spencer Tracey was 57 when he made that; Redford’s 77), among others, these are familiar waters.
We know there’ll be a corker of a storm. We know shipping lanes will come into play (will Captain Phillips notice him way down there from the bridge atop his boat big as a floating city block?) We know sharks will circle. Toward the end, I would’ve bet money a friendly whale would sidle up to his liferaft and wake him with a refreshing spray.
Chandor’s film has human interest going for it. We don’t want someone-even someone as generic as this sun-seared, salt-crusted cypher-to lose the battle against the elements. What it lacks is surprise. This shipwreck isn’t a trainwreck by any means but, in the case of the writer-director’s sophomore outing, less in the end really is less. All Is Lost winds up nautical miles from all it might have been.