All Is Lost: The Devil Is the Deep Blue Sea

All Is Lost, Robert RedfordMy friend Alane and I went to see Robert Redford’s new movie, All is Lost, and left with mixed feelings. She liked it better than I did but we were both confused by what actually happened.

First, the movie has only one actor, Mr. Redford, and very few lines of dialog. Life on a ranch is clearly good for one’s health and fitness because the 77-year-old actor is in great shape. If anyone his age could reasonably sail the ocean alone, it would be him. Whether it’s a good idea for anyone his age to sail alone anywhere is another story. The script calls him Our Man but I thought of him as the Old Dude.

Second, an accident takes out his electronic communications and navigation gear. The hull breach occurs above the cabin so I was not clear on why it rendered his engine nonfunctional. But the Old Dude responds calmly and sets about fixing the hull and cleaning up the mess. So far, so good. But the inevitable storm at sea puts him into a real and immediate crisis. Such circumstances require clear thinking, and a calm, methodical approach can mean the difference between living and drowning.

Survivorman Chimes In 

At this point, a little door opened in my head and Les StroudSurvivorman—began speaking to me, describing what to do. With limited resources of time and energy the Old Dude has to make every action and every minute count yet he seems instead to dither around. Les was telling me to take three steps when on a disabled ship with a storm approaching:

  1. Reef the sails and tie them down,
  2. Stow everything that can fall down or roll around,
  3. Put on foul-weather gear and tie yourself at the helm so you can keep the bow pointing into the waves.

Instead the Old Dude waits until the storm hits to try to pull a sail back on board after the wind blows it into the sea—with really bad consequences. And though the movie one-sheet shows him at the wheel, he actually spends little time there. Instead, he goes into the cabin and lets the boat wallow in heavy seas. When, predictably, it turns broadside to the waves and rolls over (Alane says this is called broaching), he seems surprised.

All is Lost, Robert RedfordAfter that, things get really bad. When the Old Dude has to abandon ship and move onto the life raft, Les Stroud began shouting in my ear. I have watched Survivorman rip apart vehicles from an SUV to a sailboat to obtain materials that can be used to stay alive in tundra or desert. The Old Dude also has to salvage what he needs, only with the boat sinking around him. He does well at first, filling a container with water and taking canned goods, but then drifts into bandaging a cut. At this point, I was almost shouting at the screen for him to just take the bandages and delay the first aid until he was on the raft. “Take the cushion!” I yelled (in my head) “So you won’t get sores from sitting in sea water. Take the stern life preserver in case the raft leaks!” But no.

Taking the Ocean on Its Terms 

Granted, it’s easy to be clear headed when you’re sitting in a comfortable theater seat after a good night’s sleep and with a full stomach. It’s a lot harder when you’re traumatized by crisis, exhausted from battling a storm, and dizzy from getting knocked unconscious after a wave throws you into the mast. At this point, however, the romance of sailing alone on any ocean might just give way to the folly of putting your ego ahead of common sense.

When you set out on the ocean, you take it on its own terms. The ocean doesn’t care if you’re a billionaire, a VIP, a saint, a Nobel Prize winner, or an Olympic athlete. It cuts you no slack for being an old man, a casual sailor, or a fool. Sailing around the bay on a beautiful summer day is one thing. Pitting yourself against rip currents, big storms, rogue waves, and other dangers of the open sea is quite another. Regardless of who you are or what you have accomplished, the ocean will kill you with the same casual disdain as a poor fisherman. And you won’t get a metaphysical, symbolic ending, either.

So, in the end, I was disappointed by @AllIsLost. As survival movies go—and I really like survival movies—it left me with a big “Meh.” The critics liked it better than I did, mostly because they focused on acting, direction and cinematography while I focused on the story. It’s interesting that 94% of critics rated it Fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer but only 72% of audiences Liked it.

Blue water sailors, please comment. I would love to hear what you think.

Here’s a list of more than 25 movies about survival.

6 thoughts on “All Is Lost: The Devil Is the Deep Blue Sea

  1. The most relevant thing you said to drawing any conclusions about the film’s storyline was this: “It’s a lot harder when you’re traumatized by crisis, exhausted from battling a storm, and dizzy from getting knocked unconscious after a wave throws you into the mast.”

    I once lived on a Cal 29 (and the movie had him on a Cal 39) and i once crossed (due to a risk-seeking husband) shipping lanes in dense fog that i’d protested even going out in but stupidly had gone anyway, only to have a giant wall of a tanker loom out of the fog mere feet away from us – and i’ve also (same husband’s decision) been out in gale force winds (crossing same shipping lanes) on another occasion. Imho, what the movie showed as to Redford’s character’s failings at wisest maneuvers and/or safety precautions (which had me yelling at times at the screen – at home on dvd, last night – in the way you felt the urge to do) was precisely that under such inordinate stress – the man was clearly in an existential crisis when he undertook this voyage – we don’t make every correct move, he was getting dehydrated increasingly in ways that seriously affect cognition, not to mention going on increasing food deprivation and the lack of energy that means. It was harrowing to watch, but imho utterly believable as storylines (including at the end, depending on how you interpret the ending). Giant tankers are notoriously unmanned and obviously to what transpires below; losing his one fish for food to a usurping shark … It was amazing to see the full range of his (temporarily) successful patchings and bailings and adaptations … but he also screwed up in some choices and paid dearly for them. How could it be otherwise? Would you have believed a storyline in which he thought through everything according to your guru Les?
    What is shocking to me is that the storyline allowed the ending to happen in the way i see it as having happened – even more daring than having a solo-actor storyline and essentially wordless. Maybe having spent some years at sea (a few decades ago) fueled my engagement but i was riveted in his decision-making process and it was at points unbearably tense going, yet i guess Redford gets most credit for making me stick it out when i was tempted to turn it off – for the exact opposite reason of those who claim to have been bored – eesh, the antithesis of boring, imho …
    And, now that i’ve seen it, I think this may have been the last straw for me in terms of Oscar nominations and lack thereof … How he could not even have been nominated for this masterful all-nonverbal depiction of increasingly desperate survival through ultimate trauma (and quiet desperation – which Redford gets skewed for, as if he should have been exuding expressiveness – is the only thing a remotely wise sailor would allow himself) – he never once overplayed his hand or played to camera in any melodramatic gesture that would surely have blighted other candidates for the role …

    • p.s. there’s a weird typo – where it says “obviously” in 2nd ¶, in re tankers, it should read “oblivious” … If you can fix it, that would be good.

    • and a more substantive p.s. – an inclusion i meant to make and forgot: What Redford captured in facial expression and eyes alone spoke so powerfully – from the very first moment of dealing with the crisis, i meant to mention, when we watch him realize he made a mistake to throw the sea anchor on to the container and instead goes back to retrieve it … without overtly messaging his thinking, we learn early on to re-tune our own antennas as viewers for tracking his hesitancies, his rethinkings, deliberations, and being able to read his inner “That was dumb – why did I do that?” kind of equivalency and all the more powerfully for it being unspoken but so well implied in his face and eyes.

      • Carolyn: Thank you for your detailed and expert comments. I really appreciate the time you took to respond to this post with your opinions and experiences. It’s great to hear from someone who has actually been in a boat of similar size and class in less-than-ideal sailing conditions. BTW: Les Stroud makes mistakes, too. I once watched him harvest oysters from above the low-tide line and shouted at the TV “Don’t eat those!” He did — and made himself very, very sick. The points you make about how being dehydrated and malnourished affects decision making are spot on–and visible on every season of Survivor.

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