Friday, November 22, 2013

All is Lost and Gravity: Two tales of survival under dire circumstances

In a recent Dissolve article about Oscar prognostication, Jen Chaney made an interesting point that many of the films that are in the discussion for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards focus on the theme of survival.  12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity, All is Lost -- they all feature characters fighting tooth and nail to overcome great peril.  The appeal of films like the former two is easy to see, as they're about their protagonists overcoming a group of people or a system.  When given something tangible, it's easy to think about real world implications, drawing parallels to the isolation we feel in this competitive economic climate.  But what makes the latter two films so interesting is that the characters find themselves battling against something more abstract.

In a way, Gravity and All is Lost are both just takes on the age-old "man vs. nature" theme, but they also tackle a very acute sense of loneliness.  Both Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity and the unnamed man in All is Lost (Robert Redford) are fighting for their lives while floating around in a void.  In the former, that void is literally endless, and the film generates much of its terror from the unending blackness of space.  Although Dr. Stone has two other astronauts accompanying her, she's quickly left on her own when a massive onslaught of space debris complicates the mission they're on.  The sea isn't endless, but it might as well be for Redford's character in All is Lost.  We're introduced to him as he's waking up from a nap, only to find that his boat has crashed into an errant shipping container and is now taking in water.  With nothing but ocean spanning in all directions, Redford is left to his own devices.  There is no crew, there are no other boats, it's just him and the sea.  Both films strip their protagonists of any kind of comfort or company, and the point being made is clear: if you're going to survive in this world, you're going to have to do it on your own.

On surface alone, these films are tense, gripping survival tales, but their stories of perseverance also carry metaphorical implications as well.  In the case of Gravity, the story is pretty clearly a metaphor for depression and the grieving process.  Early into the film, we learn that Dr. Stone had a daughter who died at a very young age, and that she carries a great deal of guilt over it.  It's never made clear just how long ago this happened, but it's something that weighs pretty heavily on her mind, especially when her life is in danger.  Gravity's not just about one woman's tale of survival, it's about her finding the will to live, finally overcoming all of the pain and anguish she'd been filled with.  Although the metaphor is less obvious than in Gravity, All is Lost can be taken as a film that's directly about old age.  Some reviews seem to refute that notion, but to me, all of the pieces are there.  Part of the reason why Redford's situation is so grim is that he's all by himself, much like how many elderly people have nobody around them to take care of them.  While he's out at sea, an ominous storm awaits him in the distance, looming and steadily approaching like his own mortality.  He's slowly stripped of everything he has, eventually abandoning his sinking ship on a life raft.  He escapes, but not before taking a longing and somber look at his boat as it slowly submerges.  The ship is named Virginia Jean, which sounds like an elderly woman's name, and the loss of this boat is treated like the loss of a loved one.

Although both are metaphor-laden stories of survival, these two films deviate when it comes to their execution.  Gravity heavily relies on dialogue (especially from George Clooney's chatty Matt Kowalski), and we're given a substantial amount of backstory on Dr. Stone.  In fact, one of my biggest problems with the film is that much of the conclusion is dependent on how much you're invested in her backstory, which I found to be poorly established through the script's clunky dialogue.  All is Lost, on the other hand, has very little dialogue.  Aside from a distress call and a few frustrated expletives, Redford's character doesn't speak at all.  Writer-director J.C. Chandor keeps things very minimal, and we never learn anything about the protagonist, including his initial reason for being out at sea.  That's not to say that one approach is inherently better than the other, as each film employs what is necessary to their story.  After all, Dr. Stone is panicked and grieving during her ordeal, while Redford mostly uses his knowledge and expertise to keep his wits about him, so it's natural that one would be more garrulous than the other.  Personally, I just found All is Lost's lack of details more effective than Gravity's info-dump.

Despite that, I thought that both films were very effective at conveying the danger and stakes of their protagonists' ordeal.  By offering up two different methods of execution, they give us perspective on why these kinds of stories are gripping to us, particularly in these times.  In tandem, Gravity and All is Lost prove that it may not be the specific details that matter, but the will to survive that makes them so compelling.

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