Some movies require nothing from the audience but to simply sit back and let the story entertain you- whether that entertainment comes from the actors, action, visuals, whatever it may be that grabs your attention on the screen. And then there's a film like All is Lost, a very ambitious project to be sure, and one that demands its audience do practically all the work, and depending on what you bring to the experience, every person is likely to see a different movie.
Robert Redford stars as an old man lost at sea, and that is literally all we get of his character. We have no name, no back story, no characteristics for this man- I'm liable to describe him as not being a character at all, but a representation of all humanity, struggling to stay afloat against the forces of nature which are constantly knocking him down. This metaphysical reading may be the best way to interpret the film, as there is virtually no dialogue aside from a prologue read by Redford at the beginning, in which he reads what sounds suspiciously like a suicide note. With that bleakness assured from the start, the entirety of the film has us watching Redford in an epic struggle for survival after his boat is capsized by a floating cargo nearby. This is the opening scene and from then on we see the old man do everything possible to stay alive for the next eight days, first in his boat, and then in a life raft. Every move he makes is an endurance test- he does everything right but is thwarted at every turn no matter how much time he buys himself. We feel that he's fighting the inevitable.
The film can be read as a metaphor for the aging process in some ways- Robert Redford is in his late seventies and at least somewhat closer to the end than many of us would like to think of ourselves. I have a feeling that particular aspect of the journey may help this movie to resonate stronger with viewers of a certain age, while others will undoubtedly grow impatient with the pacing and lack of story and especially other characters on the screen. Redford must survive storms, sharks, and come to terms with what is very obviously the end of his long life. With no character arc to speak of, I think identifying with the end-of-life through natural causes element is crucial to connecting with this story, which will limit its appeal.
And yet the movie is an undeniably admirable achievement on a filmmaking level. This is only director J.C. Chandor's second film (his first was 2011's Margin Call),and he shows great technical skill in having made this entire movie on the open seas in highly contained, small space areas. Redford himself has an incredibly difficult task with no real character to play, and for a performance he is only able to rely on his star power and ability to command the screen as he goes about the menial tasks of eating, drinking, attempting to repair his boat and consistently readjusting his expectation levels to what he's able to accomplish. It's a very physical performance, which one imagines is tough to extract from a nearly 80-year-old man, especially as he gets tossed around in the stormwaves and later in a lifeboat, but there's hardly one single instance of emotional reaction to any of these events.
The lack of character beats and usual moviemaking techniques make for a film that does indeed turn out cliche-free, but insists on imposing itself on the viewer as a meditational experience, possibly requiring too much from the audience, which demands some level of storytelling in their entertainment. On the other hand, what comes across is no less than exactly the movie Chandor and Redford intended to make and maybe that's enough for many. I'm of mixed feelings on All is Lost, respectful of the technical achievement but left coldly distant from what should have been a rather moving experience. This movie probably requires you to experience it for yourself in order to discover your own individual reaction to it.