What else can be said about Gravity? The sensation from esteemed filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron dazzled audiences for months last year, and critics spilled more ink (and pixels, I suppose) over it than most movies ever see.
But sadly, the insane success of that movie seemed to overshadow a few other similar efforts. One of them, Captain Philips, you may have seen anyway. Yet another movie, All is Lost, received an even smaller fanfare, though it shares more than a few similarities with those two films.
Particularly, All is Lost is almost eerily similar to Gravity. And, truth be told, I think it may be a better movie, too.
Here are some similarities:
A storied Hollywood plays a lone survivor in an overwhelmingly hostile environment. Floating debris causes the first problem, severely damaging his/her vessel, with other issues eventually snowballing the whole situation out of control. We’re left with a remarkable story about one person finding the will to survive against insurmountable odds.
So… there’s a lot of crossover. But let’s not linger there; the better conversation concerns their differences. Despite the numerous areas of overlap, the two movies simply feel like complete opposites. J.C. Chandor* and Alfonso Cuaron, though both immensely talented, have very different priorities when taking on a story like this.
Cuaron is a tour de force type. His long takes are the stuff film legends are made of, but really what stands out about a Cuaron movie is just how in control of the material he is. Gravity, with its immense amount of technical innovation, and the amount of the movie that’s pure animation, is probably the most control he’s ever had over a feature presentation.
It also wears its heart on its sleeve. You’d think a story about people nearly dying in the vacuum of space would be cold and distant, but you’d be wrong. Stars Clooney and Bullock wear their emotions on their spacesuits, the camera swoops and soars like you’ve never seen, and the music blasts alternate notes of fear and elation, depending on the moment.
To be honest, the movie wound up losing me a bit towards the end. I liked Gravity, and liked it a lot for a while, but ultimately I couldn’t forget I was watching a movie. Between the over-sold character arcs and the overbearing emotion in the closing moments, I had the a sense that maybe the film played a little too hard to the back of the room.
Conversely, All is Lost plays things much closer to its (life)vest. Heck, it’s downright minimalist. Unlike Bullock’s Ryan, Redford’s sailor has no backstory and no name. Ryan talks throughout; Redford says maybe twenty words in the entire movie (save an opening monologue that might bring the total up to fifty or sixty). No radio buddy or painted volleyball shows up for him to open up to. It’s just Redford’s weatherbeaten face, a boat, and the unforgiving ocean.
Even the movie’s technical accomplishments, though incredible in their own right, feel restrained. The score, the camerawork and the editing work overtime to eradicate every distraction; we are only meant to be watching the process of survival. While your heart may leap into your throat from time to time, it’s unlikely you’ll ever sit back in awe. More likely, you’ll simply be in the trenches with Redford and his struggle. It’s a director’s showcase, but unlike Gravity it highlights one who prefers anonymity.
Admittedly, Gravity’s explicit handling of its narrative and themes allow its allegorical component to shine through more clearly. The already-famous shot of Sandra Bullock on the spaceship, framed like a child in the womb, is a great example. It’s in-your-face, but the message is clear. Cuaron’s approach takes the guesswork out of reading the movie. Thus, the story of Ryan’s despair and rebirth might feel somewhat more universal. Obviously, it hit a nerve with people.
Even so, I think Movie Smackdown said it best: “in terms of a party metaphor: One is the guest whom you can’t help but gravitate (ahem) toward… [the other] you gradually realize, after patiently making the effort to draw him out, is the most fascinating dude in the room.”
Most WOULD find Gravity to be the more entertaining of the two. The instructions are simple: strap in and get ready. When I walked out of my IMAX 3D screening, I immediately felt it would be almost impossible to experience the movie again at home. Sure, most movies fare better on a big screen, but so much of the Gravity experience revolves around being in the theatre and holding on for dear life.
All is Lost is more thoughtful and introspective. The thriller elements are certainly there (my heart nearly stopped a couple of times), but it’s also the kind of story that really lets you bring what you want to it. While there’s a clear intent throughout, the audience gets to decide what the most important elements of the story are, and what they might mean.
Which isn’t to say J.C. Chandor is being deliberately vague — there’s concrete stuff everywhere. It’s simply not editorialized. Clearly, the reality of Redford’s situation is what Chandor wants to shine through. He finds significance in the smallest of details — mixing up some stuff to patch the hull, or putting away the dishes before rough seas hit. In a movie whose scope is limited this smartly, absolutely everything matters. There are some expected beats here and there, but everything feels fresh; the whole movie is simply earned.
So hey, if you’ve already seen Gravity once or twice, give All is Lost a shot. In its own way, it’s more challenging and more brave than its more famous counterpart. It’s absolutely worth a look.
*I championed his debut feature Margin Call a couple years ago. Without getting bogged down in specifics, let’s just say I’ll go see anything he does at this point. A very exciting, bold filmmaker.