Earlier this year, we had a film about a rookie astronaut who gets stranded out in space. It was awesome. Before that, there was a movie about a sea captain whose vessel is taken by pirates. That was thrilling. Last year, there was a movie about a teenage boy who was lost at sea with an angry full-grown tiger. That one lost me with the ending, but I can understand why so many people loved it and I don’t begrudge the film’s Oscar wins. Four years ago, there was a film about a man who worked as the sole resident of a lunar outpost. It turned out to be among the best sci-fi pictures of that decade.
So now we have All Is Lost, a movie about some old guy who has to fight for survival after his ship gets wrecked. I must admit that I was extremely hesitant to give this film a look, since we’ve already had so many other extraordinary films in recent memory that dealt with similar subject matter. Still, I ultimately gave the film a watch for one reason, and it’s the only reason why anyone gives a damn about this picture: Robert Redford.
Though Redford has mostly stayed out of the limelight since Indecent Proposal in 1993, he’s still a living legend. Redford is still fondly remembered as the star of such classics as All the President’s Men, The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the definitive cinematic adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Oh, and he’s also directly responsible for a little thing called the Sundance Film Festival. So naturally, when someone like Redford decides to come out of semi-retirement, attention must be paid.
But like I said, Redford is the only reason why anyone cared about All Is Lost. In fact, he’s the only actor in the whole movie. Still, as I’ve been saying a lot recently, there are times when one solid gimmick is all a film needs.
Sadly, this ain’t one of those times.
See, Robert Redford’s character is the focus of this movie because he’s literally the only character in this movie. And this character is listed in the credits as “Our Man.” What is the character’s name?
No, really, what is this guy’s name? What does he do for a living? Does he have any friends or family back home? Where does he come from? Where is he going? What is he doing out in the middle of the ocean? What happens if he lives? What happens if he dies? Where did he get his boat? How long has he had that boat? Was it named after someone? Did someone give it to him?
All of these questions, I’m sorry to say, go completely unanswered. The entire movie is centered around a single man that we never learn anything about. I spent 100 minutes alone with this man, desperate to survive while stuck in the middle of nowhere, and I still couldn’t tell you the first thing about him.
Perhaps more importantly, we never learn why this character is in the middle of the ocean by himself in the first place. I could understand if he was out there on some kind of mission (as with Gravity), and I could understand if he was travelling with a bunch of other people who were killed in some disaster (see: Life of Pi). But no, I’m left to assume that this guy just went out on a pleasure cruise 17,000 nautical miles from the nearest coast completely by himself for no reason.
The character steers the ship like he knows what he’s doing, so I assume that he’s a veteran sailor. But he also futzes around with navigational equipment in such a way that he might easily be a novice. Either way, going out to the middle of nowhere without any company or support is still a really fucking stupid thing to do. I’m not saying that such unbelievable negligence is worth getting killed for, but it doesn’t exactly endear me to the character.
With any survival thriller, the underlying question is always “What would you do if you were in this situation?” In this case, my reply is that I would never be in this situation. Even a total sailing novice like me — especially a total sailing novice like me — would know better than to knowingly go to such a dangerous place with no support for absolutely no reason. If nothing else, I sure as hell wouldn’t dawdle around inside a thoroughly wrecked and half-flooded ship while there’s a life raft waiting and inflated nearby. You know, like this moron does.
Thus we come to the main failing with this movie: I didn’t care. I didn’t fear for the character when something awful happened to him, I just thought “Tough luck, dumbass.” I wasn’t hanging on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what clever means the protagonist used to survive, because this character had long since proven himself to be a hopeless imbecile. And when it’s all over, we’re left with nothing. There’s no payoff to the character’s development arc, because the character was practically non-existent to begin with.
This is a survival thriller in which we have no reason to care if the protagonist survives. This is a character drama in which we never learn a single damned thing about the character. The phrase “catastrophic failure” doesn’t even begin to cover this level of storytelling incompetence.
With all of that said, the film still has two saving graces. First is the visuals, which feature some impressive set pieces and some mesmerizing underwater shots. Second is Robert Redford, who does a yeoman’s job (if you’ll pardon the expression) carrying this film on his shoulders. Unfortunately, the visuals are wasted on a completely directionless plot, which means that several shots and scenes tend to drag on. As for Redford, he’s doing his best despite a total lack of character, plot, or dialogue to work with.
All is Lost was in desperate need of an actor who could literally read the phone book and make it entertaining. It’s lucky, then, that Redford fits that bill. Without him, this movie would have been completely unwatchable. With him, this movie is merely a failed experiment. The entire film revolves around a single character that we never learn anything about and are never given any reason to care for, and it was doomed from the start as a result.
Don’t let the critical acclaim and the presence of a great actor fool you. This is an emperor that has no clothes.