On my way in to the cinema to see All is Lost in Santa Monica, I passed a building on Second Street with a plaque that read "The Robert Redford Building" -- a reminder of the tremendous stature of the star and sole cast member of J.C. Chandor's new film All is Lost.
Comparisons have already been made between Gravity and All is Lost. And it's true that they both feature survivor stories and a star protagonist, one female and the other male. But from the perspective of cultural mythology, their settings are indicators of some of the differences between the two films: outer space versus the ocean.
At the film's start, Redford plays the role of an unnamed experienced sailor, alone 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits on a boat named "Virginia Jean." We know from an initial voiceover that he has regrets, and "all is lost." Then, the story flashes backwards to eight days earlier: a huge red shipping container, dropped from a gigantic cargo ship and filled with children's sneakers, rams into his boat. This accident causes a gash, which releases a flood of water into his cabin, ruining his computer and all his electronic navigational gear. The rest of the film is about what he does in order to survive.
For me, All is Lost is a movie in cinematic dialogue with Ernest Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning novella The Old Man and the Sea (made into a 1958 John Sturges film starring Spencer Tracy), aspects of Roman Polanski's 1962 Knife in the Water, and even Ang Lee's film Life of Pi.
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea focuses on unlucky elderly fisherman Santiago's epic solo sea journey related to catching a huge marlin and trying to bring it back to shore. Sharks figure prominently in this final segment of his story. Although there is no "big fish" in All is Lost, all of the scenes are of Redford's character at sea facing the stormy elements and his ailing boat. Circling sharks are also part of this tale in the later part, shot from an underwater vantage point, with an emphasis on the small swirling schools of fish as prey. In one instance, we see Redford's character nearly catch a fish, but it is snapped up at the last second by a shark.
In Polanski's Knife in the Water, differences between what happens on the deck versus the privacy of the cabin are emphasized. When a storm approaches in Polanski's movie, the three-member cast takes refuge in the tight compartment below to wait out the weather. In All is Lost, the cabin is not "safe" from the start, as the initial leak springs there. It get patched and mopped, and the sailor is able to sleep there for awhile, taking stock of its treasures: photos, food, liquor, supplies, books, emergency preparedness instructions. These cabin scenes reminded me of the compartment games played in Knife in the Water, as they took refuge. Another way to frame it here from a mythological angle would be the cabin in All is Lost becomes an "Inmost Cave" of the Writer's Journey steps, or perhaps even a "Belly of the Whale" experience -- a specific segment of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth theory. But eventually, Redford must abandon the Virginia Jean altogether -- and the worldly treasures/safety of the cabin. He moves to a small life raft in the last act of the film.
In this raft section, All is Lost may be compared to survival sequences of Lee's Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's 2001 novel. Elements of how the mind/soul must function in order to survive such extreme ordeals--reality versus fantasy--are somewhat relatable here. This is especially so as All is Lost nears its final moments.
In terms of mythological symbols, Chandor's film could be seen as about last traumas on the waters of the unconscious, in terms of life metaphors. Ripping waves and sea storms point to temperamental, potent Poseidon in Greek myth. In Homer's Odyssey, Poseidon is depicted as a prominent active deity. Sailors famously prayed to Poseidon to ensure safe sailing; Alexander the Great sacrificed horses to him before a voyage. Poseidon operates from underneath, living on the ocean floor. In All is Lost, most of the action comes from "underneath" such as the floating, wayward red shipping container accident in the beginning. Even the sky-based storms do damage from the waters spilling over the Virginia Jean's deck. The boat and the protagonist alike become "tempest-tossed." In a way, the Virginia Jean is another character in the movie; it is "her" injury and the need to recover from it that places the hero in mortal danger. In order to survive, he must break ties to her and all she represents: his past, ties to the material world. Indeed, he must watch the Virginia Jean descend to the depths.
In its final moments, the meaning of flickering lights in the distance may be interpreted in various ways. However one may choose to interpret it in terms of realism, as the protagonist moves from the dark depths towards enlightenment, a spiritual rescue is suggested metaphorically. Redford's rugged, athletic prowess throughout the film is remarkable, as is his performance, mostly shown without dialogue. The film ultimately is a meditation on the will to survive death: the essence of life distilled to the desire to experience it, such as when Redford's character delights in the momentary joy of a light rain falling on his face.