All Is Lost Movie Review

Featuring: Robert Redford
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Movie website:

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 3–8 Feb, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 11–16 Feb, 8pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: Unrelentingly intense, incredibly convincing in its realism, and faultlessly performed.

An elderly solo yachtsman (Robert Redford) at sea in the Indian Ocean somewhere off Sumatra wakes to find his boat has collided with an adrift cargo container. He makes hasty repairs to a gaping hole in the hull, but further damage wreaked by big seas during a fearsome storm sound the yacht’s death knell. Forced into an inflatable life raft with meagre supplies salvaged from the sinking yacht and no radio, he is at the mercy of ocean currents. Using a sextant and nautical map to chart his progress, he realises that his only hope of survival is in drifting into a shipping lane and being rescued by a passing cargo ship.

The film opens with a voiceover of the Redford character (unnamed; henceforth ‘the sailor’) reading his final words, a message in a bottle he hopes his loved ones back home will eventually receive. He assures them that he did everything he could to survive, and apologises for failing. It’s a canny narrative strategy, charged with emotion, and setting up the expectation that all is, indeed, lost.

With the only character in the movie doomed, the tension and interest derives from learning what happened, and how he strove to survive. And of course, there’s always the possibility that we are not listening to a voice beyond the grave, that salvation might have come in the darkest hour.

Flashback to the onset of disaster: a violent crunching jolt, as a floating sea container impales the hull of the yacht, sticking fast. With water invading the living quarters below deck, the sailor rushes above. Thus begins an extraordinarily realistic struggle for survival at sea, in which the sailor’s resilience and resourcefulness are pushed to the limit.

There are no cheap dramatic tricks here. The sailor is an experienced seaman. He is well-equipped, all his knots hold, he knows how to respond to emergencies, does a good job of repairing the hull with fibreglass and glue. And yet, with water having rendered his radio and electronic navigation equipment unusable, he is thrown back to the dark ages of sailing when a tropical storm hits. Technology having failed him, the equation is reduced to man against the elements, the ensuing battle for life as primal as it gets.

Storms are a staple of sea survival dramas, but this has to be the most convincing one in cinema history. Physically, Redford and his character are stretched to breaking point. It’s painful to watch. And when he somehow makes it through, the storm’s fury spent and only an inflatable raft between him and annihilation, the sense of his smallness in the vast emptiness of the capricious listing ocean is oppressive and humbling. This is no movie for agoraphobics!

But there is beauty with the terror. In between crises, some of the shots out in the apparently endless ocean are truly arresting.

Mercifully, sharks are only an incidental threat. One swipes a fish from the sailor’s line just as he’s landing it, and there’s a chilling shot from deep underwater of the bottom of the raft on the surface far above, with unmistakable dark shapes circling about in the blue gloom. We know what awaits the sailor if his raft fails him, and so does he. No need to labour that.

The scenic realism is slightly compromised by some scripting shortfalls (eg: passing ships not noticing the sailor’s flares and other desperate attempts to attract attention to himself), and a jaded reviewer I spoke to after the screening derisively insisted that on inflation today’s emergency rafts automatically send out rescue signals with GPS locations. I’m no mariner, so I can’t vouch for this. Besides, in this instance I prefer to live in determined ignorance and/or suspend disbelief.

Redford has been acclaimed for this performance, and rightly so. He’s faultless, and physically, the role could not have been more demanding. However, I would question whether it demands enough of him dramatically to justify the critical claims that this is a career-best performance.

In summary, All Is Lost is unrelentingly intense, magnificently shot, incredibly convincing in its realism, and features a gutsy one-man performance from a veteran actor of class. Sea survival tales don’t get any better, so if that’s your bag don’t miss.

For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives

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