Navigating "lost-at-sea" movies

by Jasper Yeo / Film Columnist • November 6, 2013

Motion pictures as a medium are limitless, yet it’s often the most confined films that give us the most to chew on. You would think this would be the strength of a stage play, but a film can also excel with few characters in a limited space. 

A movie has the benefit of conceivably being set anywhere, removing the willful suspension of disbelief involved in watching something on a stage. J.C. Chandor’s new movie All is Lost is a perfect example. 

In many ways, it is a one-man show, but one suited to the medium. No monologues, no important dialogue, just one man versus the elements, namely water from both the sky and sea.

All is Lost starts with Redford’s unnamed character being rudely awakened by a stray cargo container crashing into his sailboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. From there on, we watch as he faces one obstacle after another to stay afloat and alive long enough to be rescued. Most of the film is simply figuring out what Redford is going to do next. 

To give away too much would take away the fascination of watching layers of misfortune unfold.

If the above synopsis sounds pared-down, that’s because it is. In recent years, “lost-at-sea” movies have become quite popular. The genre has endured the centuries across the page, stage, and screen because it forces people to accept increasingly limited conditions to survive. It’s a very primal tension. From Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat to Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, the lost at sea genre has adapted itself quite well to film.

Still, filmmakers feel there is a need to make sure the audience isn’t bored by a few people alone at sea. Last year’s Life of Pi opts to be a visual showcase seeking the larger answers about life and God, yet most of the action revolves around a boy and a tiger. 

The summer of 2013 saw the release of the Norwegian film Kon Tiki about a Norwegian expedition to recreate a migration route. Naturally, the filmmakers decided to add the non-historical threat of sharks to the mix.

Yet, as our intrepid Nords rest, they gaze up at the stars and have a moment of otherworldly contemplation. Even the recent Gravity aims high and tries to incorporate themes of coping with loss into its life-or-death struggle in the ocean that is outer space.

All is Lost is different, though. Redford has no prior demons to fight, nor any backstory at all. 

There doesn’t seem to be any time to gaze up at a computer-generated tapestry of stars to wonder about man’s place in the cosmos when there are repairs to be made and drinking water to be collected. The image of Redford braving the storm may look romantic, but we are made aware of the consequences of the situation.

A bleak state of affairs to be sure, and if left in other hands than those of director J.C. Chandor, it may not have been the captivating experience that it ended up being. Were it a novel, Redford’s thoughts may have been fascinating to read along with his actions. 

But skillful narration is tough to translate to a film, so the intense visuals and fine-tuned pacing of All is Lost pick up the slack and make it something truly unique in the crowded field of disaster-at-sea stories. Through film, we can observe a matter-of-fact ordeal without adding editorial comments into the picture.

How do you wrap up such a story, though? That’s the moment where the film loses a bit of its balance. The conclusion is too vague, but with a few changes it would be plenty ambiguous without drawing attention to itself. 

However, like many lost-at-sea films, the conclusion isn’t nearly as important as the step-by-step observation of humans under extremely isolated conditions.