All Is Lost Movie review

All Is Lost: Hollywood Misses the Mark

Saturday, November 09, 2013S.V. CAMBRIA

All Is Lost, written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), is the latest in a long list of survival movies to come out of Hollywood.  The story begins as a single-handed sailor wakes to find water coming into his boat after hitting a shipping container full of tennis shoes that was floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  The boat is holed above the waterline on the starboard side just at the navigation station where the skipper, listed as “our man” in the credits, keeps his computer, sideband radio and electronics, destroying them all.   

Although he is able to repair the hull, he is caught in a storm which dismasts his vessel and holes the boat in another location.  He is eventually abandons ship for his life raft and the remainder of the movie takes place there as he continues to fight for survival and attempts to be rescued. 

The film stars Robert Redford who plays the only character in the movie and, with the exception of an opening narrative and crying out an expletive late in the story, is completely silent and carries the plot along through his actions.  When the film was debuted in Cannes earlier this year, he received a nine minute standing ovation for his performance:  He deserved it.  The film, however, did not.  With so many true-life stories of sailors who have lost their boats at sea and spent day after day fighting for survival in hopes of being rescued or rescuing themselves to draw upon, Chandor settles on a piece of sloppy fiction. 

The movie leaves you with more questions than answers but there is one thing we do know:  Redford’s character is a competent solo-sailor.  How do we know this?  Because he’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a difficult and remote stretch of water.  And his demeanor is calm, cool and collected throughout the film, which Redford plays brilliantly.  So why so many amateurish mistakes? 

We went to see the movie with the sole expectation of being entertained for an hour and forty minutes but found ourselves analyzing the plot because there were so many issues with it.  Here is a list of some of the more significant ones we found:

  •  Where is his safety equipment? His jack lines?  His PFD?  His harness?  His tether?  When the movie starts, “our man” is napping in the v-berth and the conditions are calm, so you can believe that he would be willing to walk around the deck of the boat untethered.  But in the height of a storm?  No way.  Using the proper safety equipment would take nothing away from the plot.  In fact, it makes it more plausible.  At one point, the boat is rolled while he is in the cockpit and he miraculously manages to get back in as it uprights.  We don’t buy it.  The ocean can be a very violent place and if there are waves large enough to roll a sailboat occurring, they’re most likely going to drag you away unless you are inside the vessel or tied to it. 

  • Why wasn’t his para-anchor rigged?  To stave off the container, “our man” deploys a para-anchor that he has stowed below decks.  But it’s not a piece of equipment that you pull out at the last minute.  It’s somewhat complicated and requires a retrieval line, chains, a bridal and hundreds of feet of one-inch line for a vessel his size (39 feet) all neatly coiled and ready to deploy.  That aside, the manoeuvre works and he returns to the container to retrieve the anchor by hitting it, bow first (an action that could easily have caused further damage to the boat) rather than approaching it cautiously from the leeward side and attempting to tie up to it like adock.  “Our man” then jumps off his vessel with only a line in his hand, walks precariously along the floating container, and retrieves the line to the sea anchor with the other hand.  Really?

  • Why did he leave the hole open and allow more water to enter the boat?  As “our man” leaves the container behind, he sails off on a port tack which means the wind is coming from the port side of the boat and the boat is leaning to starboard, the side the hole is on.  This puts the hole below the water and allows it to come rushing in.  No sailor in their right mind would do this.  They would leave on a starboard tack (or start their engine) in order to keep the hole above the water until they could address the problem.  In the meantime, he should have stuffed the hole with anything he could have found (clothes, a mattress, pillows, etc.) to help keep water out before ever trying to fix it AND pumped the bilges.  Had he kept the water at bay rather than invited it in, his batteries may have survived and he could have used the electric bilge pumps rather than doing it all by hand (a job made much harder by the fact that he allowed so much water into the boat).  And why on earth did he have to whittle a handle for his Whale Pump?  They come with perfectly good stainless steel handles that most sailors have mounted near the pumps themselves.  It’s very difficult to believe that a sailor with “our man’s” experience would make such a mistake. 

  • What about the hull repair?  Again, this guy isan experienced solo-sailor and that means one thing, he knows how to fix problems.  Offshore boats oftentimes carry extra boards with them.  We have pieces to replace our weather boards should they be swept away and pieces to cover every port and hatch in case they’re blown out.  But if he didn’t carry extra with him, he should have used one from a berth or settee, adhered it to the hull with screws and 5200 (we all carry it), and fiberglassed over that instead of the ridiculous job he did.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  Besides, it isn’t the hole that eventually gets him, so why not take the time to do it right?

  • Why doesn’t he sail towards the shipping lane from the beginning?  After attempting to send out a distress call, “our man” doesn’t seem to take charge of the situation, another inconsistency with a seasoned sailor.  He doesn’t pull out charts to plot a course to the nearest port or a place where he might be able to receive help from other vessels (i.e. the shipping lane).  Rather, he continues to pump the bilge, mop the floor, eat and sleep.  At one point he even pours a couple of large drinks from a bottle of alcohol (nobody in their right mind would do anything that could impede their senses) when he should have been actively seeking a way out of his predicament. 

  • Where is his EPIRB (Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon)?  Most offshore boats have them.  Why doesn’t he?  Again, he’s a competent sailor.  He has a para-anchor, so why doesn’t he have and EPIRB?  For under $500, he could have set it off, boarded his life raft and waited.  Okay.  Sure.  This destroys the plot but there’s no reason there couldn’t be an issue with the EPIRB.  With water rushing in the boat, it could have been swept away or some other convoluted reason, but it should have been there.  And the audience should have seen it whether or not they understood its significance. 

  • Why did he pull out a storm sail in the middle of a storm?  First off, despite the fact that the sail bag reads, “Storm Sail” it isn’t.  For his size vessel, a 39 foot sailboat, the sail would be approximately 80 square feet and be constructed from a heavy material.  What he attempt to raise was a large sail made of Dacron, or something similar.  Because the conditions are rough, he abandons the effort mid-job and leaves the sail lying on the deck where it can be swept away by the wind or water creating even more problems that the film could have used to its advantage but chose to ignore  AND he does it all without wearing a PFD, harness and tether. With that said, the time to put out a storm sail is before the storm arrives, which he clearly saw coming.

  • Why did he deploy his para-anchor from the stern of the boat?  While they can be deployed off the stern in moderate conditions and stable seas (not the case here) for a brief rest, para-anchors are designed to be deployed off the bow.  If they are deployed off the stern in heavy seas (which presumably we’re in because the boat was rolled twice), waves will come over the stern and funnel into the boat and eventually sink it.

  • Why does he leave his boat for the life raft?  First rule in offshore sailing, never abandon ship unless you’re stepping UP to the life raft.  In other words, you stay with the vessel, which is more secure than a rubber raft, until it’s no longer feasible.  Rather than attempt to pump the vessel again, “our man” deploys his life raft, tethers it to his sailboat, and spends the night in the raft . . . still tied to the boat, completely ignoring the fact that it could sink and take him down with it.  And why doesn’t he have a ditch bag, a (normally) waterproof bag with emergency equipment in it, to take with him?  Yes.  Life rafts come equipped with some emergency gear, but it’s limited and most (if not all) offshore vessels carry extra items with them (an EPIRB, an extra waterproof handheld VHF radio, a handheld compass, additional flares, a solar still or watermaker, sunscreen, hats, swim goggles, binoculars, fishing gear, etc.)

  • Why did he only have four flares with him?  At the end of the film, “our man” has to resort to lighting a fire in his (flammable) life raft, destroying the only thing separating him from shark-infested waters.  Why?  Because he only has four flares with him and he’s already used three.  Why doesn’t he at least set off the final one to attract the attention of a passing boat?  Supposedly because his previous two attempts to signal another vessel was unsuccessful.  Still.  It’s doesn’t make sense.  He had only been out there eight days and seemed prepared to give up. 

Surely the answer to one or even all of these questions is for dramatic effect and/or to keep the story moving.  But you don’t need them.  Enough can go wrong at sea when you do everything right without inventing problems.  In all fairness, fatigue can and will effect your decision making but the fact that “our man” was so unprepared simply doesn’t ring true. 

With that said, the cinematography is beautiful (with the exception of a cheesy underside shot of a school of fish and sharks circling the life raft) and the special effects are, for the most part, convincing.  Robert Redford delivers a brilliant performance and, if he receives an Oscar nomination for best actor, we won’t be surprised.  But if you’ve ever stepped aboard a sailboat and spent any time at all at sea, save yourself the money and don’t waste your time seeing this film.  All Is Lost, despite its rave reviews, is merely the latest example of Hollywood’s laziness and need to over-simplify life.    

*Our Background:  David has over fifty years of sailing experience and I have more than fourteen.  We have been living aboard sailboats for twelve years, six in the Southern Hemisphere cruising New Zealand with an offshore passage to Tonga and six in the US and Canada cruising the West Coast and the Inside Passage. 

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