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All Is Lost and the Human Condition

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We are born alone, we die alone, and we are swept unremembered into a meaningless eternity. This is the message a viewer might take away from Robert Redford's performance in his All Is Lost.

The film is a stunning tale of loneliness. It is set on a sailboat adrift on the Indian Ocean. Robert Redford -- we are never given his screen name -- is sailing far outside shipping lanes in a part of the world where humans rarely venture. The opening scene is one of desolation. His ship has been wrecked and he is writing a note which he intends someone to read. We are never told, however, who his intended recipient might be. A wife perhaps? An estranged lover? A son or a daughter? An old college friend? Or, perhaps just a futile effort at being remembered by someone, somewhere, after time runs out for our protagonist.

After this opening scene, the film fills in a bit of back story. We learn that Redford is in this predicament because his sailing sloop has been rammed by a random shipping container that had broken loose from one of the large freighters traversing these forgotten waters. Roused from slumber, Redford must engage in a continuous struggle to save his life.

Like life itself, the movie seems to say, it is a contest Redford is destined and doomed to lose. Valiantly, he patches the leak with spare fiberglass and epoxy, attaching some wooden planks for added strength. Having lost electrical power, Redford improvises, creating a manual control for the sloop's bilge pumps, so he might slowly, laboriously drain the water that had poured in from the leak.

But Redford cannot breathe easy. Briefly, he managed to restore electricity in the hope of communicating with the outside world, but the ship's radio sputtered into silence after a few minutes' fitful service. Now, Redford is truly alone.

A storm blows up, which wrecks the boat. In the teeth of the gale, Redford is forced to deploy an inflatable life raft, which he kept tethered to the main vessel. When calm is restored, he succeeds in transferring some supplies from the sloop to the lifeboat before his fatally damaged sailboat sinks beneath the waves.

Redford's only hope now is the little orange and red oval which has become his world. In one poignant scene, shot from above, we see Redford curled up, asleep in his tiny bobbing dot, surrounded by a grim and unyielding universe of blue. Is it a microcosm of the earth in the void of space? Certainly, I thought so.

Like we do when we encounter the headwinds of life, Redford continued to improvise, in his case brilliantly. He is a modern sailor accustomed to GPS and the many convenient ways of keeping track of our place in the world. But thrown into unfamiliar circumstances, he opened a box containing an ancient mariner's sextant. Reading a how-to manual as he assembled the pieces and gazed at the heavens, Redford charted a course for his little vessel, day-by-day working his way into the Indian Ocean shipping lanes, in the hope that he might be seen and rescued.

But his dream of rescue was dashed. First one and then another large container vessel loom into view. Redford shoots off his flares, shouts, tries to draw the attention of the two ships. But the ships trudge onward, their propellers audibly churning, giving the appearance not of ghost-ships, but of robot-ships, fully automated, dehumanized pieces of machinery carrying their large cargoes of just-in-time inventory in that ceaseless crushing progress we call efficiency. These lifeless, unresponsive vessels -- are they nothing more than the god of myth and magic, indifferent to the pleas of a humanity born to die?

Redford slowly drifts back out of the shipping lanes. Venturing into them had been a fool's errand to begin with. And then another storm brews on the horizon. Redford is tossed and turned, driven mad by the enclosing reality of personal extinction. The scene has all the force of the ancient Greek myths, Sisyphus condemned to roll the rock up the hill only to be crushed again at nightfall.

Once again, however, calm is restored. Redford sees a light at close distance. He lights a fire to call attention to his plight. The fire gets out of hand, his little lifeboat is burned, and Redford is thrown into the sea.

The movie is one of the most powerful existentialist statements I have seen brought to film in years. We are forced to ask: Is the whole struggle for life pointless? Meaningless? The void, the chasm that is deep space, the infinity that envelops us, does anything finally matter? Why resist the closing of the light?

All Is Lost reminded me, on a surface level anyway, of the Jon Krakauer book (and movie) Into the Wild. In that story, we see Chris McCandless, a recent Emory University graduate, embark on a solitary (and deadly) quest to find himself in the Alaska back-country. But that story, finally, is about self-discovery. It is a more extreme version of Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond, a search to find human authenticity in the midst of society's vain pomps and hollow glory.

All Is Lost, on the other hand, means to ask a very different question: Is the human condition futile? There is no redemption here. No grace. No pardon received, though Redford's note in the movie's opening scene tepidly beseeches forgiveness.

As a Christian, I might venture a response to the unremitting bleakness of this canvas. "God is love," the first Epistle of John proclaims (1 John 4: 16). The human condition is not one of loneliness but of warm relationship. We are connected to countless others -- those who lived generations and centuries before us, those who are friends and neighbors and family today, and those generations who are as yet unborn to whom we have the responsibility of good and faithful stewards.

This is what the Redford character is missing and the essential flaw in the existentialist message. The human community, in Redford's world, has been stripped away and the person stands in solitary oneness against the cosmos. Redford's character is the Nietzschean Superman, the Ayn Randian striver, but there is no triumph in his life, no final victory, for he dies defeated and alone, cursing his fate.

Our salvation comes from the many sacrifices, large and small, we make for one another, the goodness and kindness we show and share with each other. We may be adrift in a large and hostile ocean, surrounded by the impenetrable vastness of infinity, and yet if we have each other we are not lost or without hope. All Is Lost -- all, indeed, is lost if we have not love for one another.