My 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 Stroud—Survivorman—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:
- Reef the sails and tie them down,
- Stow everything that can fall down or roll around,
- 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.
After 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.