Comparing The Similar Themes But Vastly Different Approaches Of Two Major 2013 Films.
The following transcript was read by me via Skype, more or less verbatim, during Zekefilm’s Best Films of 2013 Live Event, held in December of that year at Grace & Peace Fellowship, PCA in St. Louis, MO. Being something that was spoken, there’s lots of repetition and some lack of focus; this is probably two or three different conversations at the same time. Please forgive the potential tediousness.
Up until October, for a lot of critics there was no real lock for picture of the year. Sure there had been a couple good dramas like Mud and Blue Jasmine, but nothing really leaped out with unanimous praise. Until Gravity. Gravity was about as perfect an hour and a half as you could ask for in a Hollywood movie. Two of the industry’s most recognizable actors, technical and computer graphics achievements on screen that raised the bar and an easy to grasp, feel-good subtext about overcoming your past and having hope for the future. So basically, Silver Linings Playbook in space. I enjoyed Gravity immensely, even more on the second viewing, but less on the third.
Some people I’ve spoken to didn’t care for Gravity as much from the get go. And their complaints are fair. 1) It’s a little too sentimental; the spiritual symbolism is quite simple, bordering on pandering. 2) For its technical realism, its characters act very much like dashing stars in a Hollywood movie. In Gravity logic, as in Hollywood logic, desperate times call for witty one-liners and internal monologues should be spoken aloud, so we all know how to feel. For me, the sentimentality and movie-ness of the script still work for Gravity, and if anything show the fine balance of working with big actors and a studio. If it weren’t for Director Alfonso Cuarón’s integrity and patience with his studio, Gravity could have come across like a schmaltzy Apollo 13. As has been documented, Cuarón had to stand his ground against studio pressure to insert cutaways to Mission Control’s rescue operation and flashbacks to Sandra Bullock’s earth life. Cuarón successfully pushed his vision through and, as it is, Gravity has as bare a script as you can get away with for this kind of movie.
And that’s exactly what I would have said, until I saw All Is Lost.
Two weeks after Gravity was released, there was All is Lost starring Robert Redford and the Indian Ocean. If you haven’t seen All Is Lost, you’re not alone. The movie has only grossed $6 million dollars so far, but it has already received two golden globe nominations, one for best original score, which was done by Alex Ebert, the lead singer for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and one nomination for best actor, for the only actor in the movie Robert Redford. The plot to All Is Lost is quite simple. An unnamed sailor wakes up to see that water is flooding his boat. He quietly and calmly deals with the situation, because he is well-prepared and competent (as opposed to Sandra Bullock’s “how’d they allow her on the shuttle?” character in Gravity). The ocean doesn’t care about Robert Redford’s preparedness, however, as through a series of unfortunate and altogether out of his control events, the sailor finds himself less and less likely to survive the elements, having to rely on his resourcefulness and will to live more and more.
All Is Lost has a very similar story to Gravity—a lone survivor being resourceful in a fight against nature. But in many ways All Is Lost is the anti-Gravity. Outside of an introductory voice over, and a couple shouts of “hey” at a passing freighter, the only word spoken by Robert Redford’s character in 106 minutes is a big ol’ F-bomb. And man is it a good and well-deserved F-bomb; possibly the best F-bomb in movie history. We don’t even know the character’s name. Robert Redford is only credited as “Our Man.” In All Is Lost there is no revealing dialogue, no self-aware soliloquy, there are no witty remarks to endear you to its protagonist. “Our Man” is just there, doing what would be done by most men in his situation.
Back to Gravity for a moment. In Gravity we get visual cues like the memorable fetal position scene, and little props like a praying Buddha to remind us of the spiritual nature of living vs. just surviving, the transcendental hope of prayer. In All is Lost, director J.C. Chandor doesn’t have time for any of that. Whatever “Our Man” is thinking, he mostly keeps to himself. Almost all of All is Lost is watching a sailor work on a boat lost at sea. Whatever meaning the viewer pulls from the film, it is a meaning he brought in with himself. The movie could not work without the monumental performance that 77-year old Robert Redford puts up on the screen. There are no dazzling 3D whiz-bang effects, or roller coaster thrill ride moments. Even the score is subdued, choosing not to match the thunderstorms with the overwhelming sentimentality movie-goers have grown accustomed to. There is realism and silence. Not even ‘gritty’ realism or ‘deafening’ silence, the kind of terms you’d find in a movie blurb or poster. All is Lost succeeds in stripping all hyperbole from its story. It is just there, with as much beauty as the ocean and as much drama as one man can sincerely muster by himself. The bad things that happen to Our Man, thunderstorms, sharks, were all likely to happen. Who is to say that Our Man has the odds on his side? Or that any of us have the odds on our side?
“All Is Lost” has a very similar story to “Gravity”—a lone survivor being resourceful in a fight against nature. But in many ways “All Is Lost” is the anti-“Gravity”.
Now, I am not comparing All Is Lost to Gravity to somehow say that one is better than the other. I think that’s up to personal preference. I’d even say that your preference says something key about your personality. I will definitely say they are perfect complements to each other.
Gravity uses a dire situation as a foil for how we try to make sense of life. In a way, aren’t we all “lost in space”? What difference does it make if we are on the surface of the earth or 1200 miles above it. We have the same questions and feeling of distance from answers. Gravity transfers something as complex and particular as being lost in space to something as universal as trying to have hope in the future. If God, or Buddha, or self-actualization or just luck, can bring this space lady to her resolution, then how much more so is it possible for us to have happy meaningful lives? It’s a hopeful message, regardless of your beliefs. And that’s what movies usually are: hopeful messages, regardless of belief or truth.
All is Lost uses a dire situation to give us 106 minutes of someone dealing with a dire situation. There are no obvious analogies; there are no deeper meanings to any one action. To glean a meaning would be to super impose a meaning onto it. And perhaps that is the message of All is Lost, whatever deeper meaning it, or life, has is purely super-imposed. It is a dark message, but one that I believe is honest to the film. If life is taken as a random series of events, if chances are that man’s chances actually aren’t that good, then all is lost and all we have left is regret. It is not a hopeful message, and whatever hope you leave the theater with is the hope you brought in.*
In a lot of ways both movies can be a companion to last year’s Life of Pi, a movie which asks which story would you rather believe: the one that gives you more hope than when you walked in, or the one which has you clawing for hope as you walk out? Which is truer? But that’s another talk for another day.
So, to conclude, if you’re having a bad day, watch Gravity. If you want to watch somebody having a bad day, watch All Is Lost.
*POTENTIAL SPOILER: A question was brought up on whether I was choosing to ignore the final ten seconds of All Is Lost. My only comment, while trying to stay spoiler-free, even if you choose to interpret that scene at face value, it is still only one small breath after hundreds of heaves of hopelessness preceding it. To me, if taken at face value, that scene is only a concession, and not the enduring message of the film.