December 2013


Rick Alber

I've never been particularly afraid of isolation, but apparently many of us are, if Hollywood is a reflection of societal zeitgeist.  Dozens of films playing to the public's terror of being alone, really alone, dependent on one's wits and luck to survive, have been made. Cast Away and Life of Pi are recent examples, and two exciting, gorgeously-filmed new ones are in theatres today. Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as an astronaut adrift in the emptiness of space, while All is Lost features Robert Redford alone at sea battling the elements in a broken boat.

Capsule review: see both of these movies if you enjoy riveting reminders of our species' ingenuity and will to survive. Each will keep you guessing and gasping for 90 minutes before delivering a satisfying resolution.

In Gravity viewers are inside the spacesuit and head of a medical doctor on her first shuttle trip (Sandra Bullock). She's a highly trained, but somewhat tentative, novice astronaut. Her partner, Kowalski (George Clooney), chatters and jokes to calm her fears as she floats outside the spaceship doing routine repairs. Sudden tragedy strikes and she’s ultimately cast adrift alone and without a link to Earth, spinning lazily below her. To survive, she must discover an inner confidence to remain calm – she's running out of oxygen – and solve a series of technical challenges that may or may not give her a chance to pilot an emergency capsule back to Earth.

Gravity presents this woman-against-the-elements story in breathtaking cinematic grandeur. See it in Three-D if you can. Spindly, delicate structures in orbit are framed against our planet’s  immense face, giving viewers a perspective never filmed before. On one side, there’s the black, silence of space. On the other, there’s an indescribably gorgeous green planet. In between, lies the terror of being alone and helpless.

Despite is raw human elements, however, Gravity is ultimately a triumph of technology. The cinematic wonders that can transport moviegoers to distant worlds is in full, glorious display. You've never seen anything like it. And the incredible complex systems we've created to lift us off our planet are presented as tools of peril and the means of survival.

While Gravity is unlike any other film, All is Lost hues to a more traditional man-against-nature framework, but with a twist. Robert Redford plays an older, seasoned sailor on a solo trip in the Indian Ocean. When calamity strikes, he remains stoic, centered and focused, the calm opposite of Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity. Redford acts almost entirely with his face, his well-worn features filmed in tight close-ups and his age – 70+ - a clear detriment to the intense physical challenges he faces. Like Bullock, he’s completely isolated and mute, uttering only two complete sentences throughout the film.

At the outset, Redford is a man of skill and confidence, on his umpteenth trip aboard a well-equipped boat. One turn of bad luck after another erodes that confidence and reveals the inner man's need to prevail over nature and keep living. Along the way the film presents issues of consumerism – his boat is wrecked by one of the millions of shipping containers plying the seas – and the indifference of the universe. Throughout, the story is relatively predictable, though exciting and suspenseful. You won't be bored.

All is Lost works because Robert Redford makes us believe all of us can triumph over adversity and survive even when all hope has disappeared. This is perhaps the pinnacle of the long and wonderful career of one of our best actors.

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