3 Stars – Thought-provoking
All Is Lost is an existential parable written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Similar to Tom Hank’s Cast Away where the focus is on one man surviving a plane crash on a deserted island, Chandor takes the genre to the next level. Beginning the tale at sea with no background information there is only one man and no dialogue as we experience an odyssey that is as tense as it is trying. The single cast member is Robert Redford as Our Man, an “everyman” or “old man and the sea” type of character who is sailing alone in the Indian Ocean.
Using a flashback technique that has Our Man writing a goodbye apology to the phantom family he has somehow offended, we then travel back eight days earlier. Seventeen-hundred miles at sea, Our Man is awakened abruptly by water flowing into the cabin. He quickly realizes that a freakish accident has occurred where a floating cargo container has gouged a hole in the hull of his ship. With little reaction and significant stress, Our Man quickly takes action to save himself and his ship. This proves to be only the first challenge in what is arguably a doomed voyage.
Without spoiling the various events that transpire to eventually leave him in dire straits, the odyssey is a classic existential voyage. The elements of the parable are epic: We don’t know why Our Man is at sea nor even if he wants to be there; The challenges he faces are beyond his control and yet his very survival is based on overcoming them; The choices he makes at each point in the voyage require courage, wisdom and stamina; His isolation in the world is reinforced by the repeated presence of the large vessels that either don’t know he is there or choose to ignore him; And his final attempt to save himself results in the destruction of the lifeboat on which he had placed his hope.
The only word of dialogue comes in the midst of the mounting troubles as Our Man shouts the “F” word into the void. Absent any sense of God or even a “higher power” to whom he can appeal, Our Man is left only with increasing despair. Facing the “existential angst” that has defined human life for many, Our Man is ready to surrender to the deep when the film comes to an end. (SPOILER ALERT)
It is only then that an unidentified hand comes from above to grasp him. Choosing to not reveal whose hand it is Chandor only flashes a brilliant light as we can only imagine how Our Man has now been changed by this serendipitous savior. A savior who just happens to be present in his final hour of need far from the shore and with the light to show Our Man the way. That decision by Chandor as both writer and director changes the nature of this tale into one of hope where despair has been in virtually every frame of the film. It is interesting how little hope needs to be present in order to change the very nature of a story and a life.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. Describing life as an odyssey that requires courage and wisdom of the traveller is common in literature. How would you describe your life as a journey, and what significant challenges have you had to face? How did those moments come to define who you are?
2. In his moment of surrender to the inevitability of death, Our Man wrote a letter of apology to his family. Are there any letters you need to write now so that you can be reconciled long before your death?
3. Would you travel by yourself – either on the open ocean or in life? Why do you answer as you do?