Is “All Is Lost” “Gravity” on a boat, or is “Gravity” “All Is Lost” in space?
The proximity of the release of these two films — which surely will rank among the year’s best — offers an intriguing juxtaposition. Where would you rather be stranded: floating in the middle of nowhere in the stars, or floating in the middle of nowhere in the ocean? (I’m no expert, but I’m going with the ocean, just because you’re at least on the planet — some planet, any planet.)
It’s a totally outlandish proposition — the vast majority of us would never find ourselves in either of these extreme situations — but we can enjoy the process of watching others struggle to survive from the well-stocked, climate-controlled comfort of our couch or the multiplex. We can thrill at the peril, wallow in the catharsis and revel in the eventual redemption these kinds of films provide. And seeing A-list stars give powerful performances as they subject themselves to such torment — whether it’s Sandra Bullock as an engineer in “Gravity” or Robert Redford as a yachtsman in “All Is Lost” — significantly enhances the emotional heft of such movies.
What can be just as frightening as staying alive in these punishing scenarios, though, is the fact that these characters truly are alone — with their thoughts, with their fears, with nowhere to hide. Placed in this crucible, they must face the purest form of their deepest selves, whether they want to or not. Think about it: How often are we really alone, with no one around, no one texting us, no email to check? We multitask constantly, overload ourselves with stimuli and try to cram everything we possibly can into every single second of the day. Partly this is because we can, and we think we should because technology allows it. But the juggling also provides a distraction — from our troubles, from instincts we’d rather not ponder.
Take “127 Hours,” for instance. We know that Danny Boyle’s 2010 film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a young man with a taste for high adventure who went hiking alone in the canyons of southern Utah and resorted to extreme measures to extricate himself from a large boulder. James Franco does tour-de-force work as Ralston as he considers his options, exercises his resources and tries to entertain himself so he won’t go mad. Eventually, though, he must turn inward, reflect on his shortcomings and make amends with himself. It’s almost a religious experience — a last confession to whatever spiritual being happens to be listening.
Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007), also inspired by a true story, features another daring figure who sought the solitude that would become his undoing. Emile Hirsch gives a mature and transformative performance as Chris McCandless, who fled his well-to-do family in search of adventure. After graduating with honors from Emory University, he rejected the safe, comfortable life that surely was in store for him by destroying his credit cards and donating his savings to charity. After traveling the country and connecting with various strangers, McCandless ended up in the wilds of Alaska, in an abandoned bus, in the ratty sleeping bag where hunters would eventually find his emaciated body. He died alone — but he remained true to himself and his purpose, for better and for worse.
Bullock’s character certainly didn’t intend to be stranded when she signed up for her first space mission, but as we learn through the course of Alfonso Cuaron’s stunningly beautiful and intimate film, she is running from something: a traumatic and painful personal loss. She doesn’t want to think about it — she wants to focus on the challenging task at hand. Only when she believes she’s on the brink of death does she allow herself to break down, forgive herself and let go of her blame and self-doubt. Only then does she find peace — when there’s nothing else to seek.
Redford’s character also seems to be running from something — himself, presumably. We never even learn his name in J.C. Chandor’s precise, minimalist and nearly wordless film. We don’t know what he does for a living or why he’s chosen an arduous solo journey that leaves him scrambling to survive in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We know that he regrets this decision from an opening voice over: a farewell letter he writes on day six of his ordeal. And he’s clearly a man of means and intelligence, given that he can afford this vessel and all its accoutrements and he displays a calm resourcefulness with every new obstacle that arises. We are left to fill in the blanks, but can still identify with the powerful sensation of facing one’s mortality.
“All Is Lost” has obvious parallels to 2000’s “Cast Away,” although Redford doesn’t even have the benefit of an anthropomorphized volleyball to keep him company. Tom Hanks’ character, a time-obsessed systems analyst for FedEx, must come to accept the irrelevance of the passage of time once his plane crash lands in the middle of the South Pacific. Trapped on an uninhabited island, a man who had devoted his career to improving productivity must learn to devote every ounce of his energy to sheer survival. As in “All Is Lost,” so much of the way Hanks’ character reveals himself in Robert Zemeckis’ film is through his actions: the methodical way he uses airplane scraps to build shelter, for example.
At least the characters in the terrifying, low-budget horror movie “Open Water” (2004) — about married scuba divers who find themselves stranded when their group leaves without them — have each other. But they also have real sharks to contend with (and the actors playing the vacationers wore steel mesh under their wetsuits for protection while shooting). At that point, there’s no time for an existential crisis. You’re just trying to avoid having your legs bitten off.