This month, Hollywood has unleashed two films that are, mostly, about one character stranded from civilization and forced to survive by oneself. These films are largely defined by their environments: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity portrays outer space as a bleak, hopeless void and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost demonstrates how the sea gradually swallows man whole. The English-class term is Man vs. Nature, and both films display this conflict with an initially appealing blend of minimalistic technique and visceral intensity.
But as both works attempt to dazzle, they fail as strangely banal narratives. Their stories move with a grotesque, unhinging logic (as one might expect) to show that the will of nature inevitably topples man’s, but deeper contemplation is diminished by a narrative that serves up a series of conceits, not fully-formed ideas. Neither films land on a profound point about the real world, only phony optimistic conclusions to compensate for the first two acts of unremarkable cynicism.
Hollywood films, even unsuspecting art-house movies like Gravity and All Is Lost, use cynicism like a basic special effect: to decorate and add flourishes to the depicted world (that’s not to say special effects are meaningless, they just don’t define cinema but bless the people skilled at creating them). Special effects are, by nature, components so it is up to directors to discover how these components will dynamically enhance the film’s story and world. The special effect comparison applies to All Is Lost: cynicism is inserted in one component of dialogue – when Man’s curses, at the half-way point, “fuck!” (which only inspires laughter, a common reaction to cynicism lazily integrated in “serious” movies).
In Gravity or All Is Lost, the Man vs. Nature concept – which drives the cynicism (more so in Gravity, as All is Lost braves its waters) – is “astonishing” to such an extent that audiences ignore the fakery of the content, the insufficiencies of the style. Sure, both films are daring but guts do not always mean glory. Just because they are quieter and more relenting than the usual blockbuster does not render them worthy. If we truly want to be a “smart-about-movies crowd” (as the saying goes), we need to evaluate the technique, where the story takes us, and if in fact the film earns its claims.
Firstly, Gravity tricks its audience with specious 3D space imagery, whereas All Is Lost unfolds in dull, shaky closeups. The former tries to win viewers over with making us feel like we are in space, a kind of theme-park immersion – you may as well gasp “wicked!” and then starve for a compelling story. The latter identifies us solely with the one man (played by Robert Redford) by rarely allowing the camera to go beyond arm’s reach. But beside an opening voice-over, the man is so ill-defined that his p.o.v. shots, in a way, lack perspective. We don’t share his response, at least in a dramatized, forceful way.
All Is Lost may seem “plotless” due to its constricted space, but the irony is that Chandor’s narrative progresses only through plot points. He does not constantly articulate character feeling but simply shows, in the most plodding manner, Man as he tries to fend off imminent disaster. Since Chandor only presents a linearity of events, his sequences are scarcely fastened with tension and suspense. It gives All Is Lost the rote, indifferent quality of a TV movie (its crisp blue vistas are also boxed out by those lousy, stultifying closeups).
Gravity opens with a gimmicky admonishment of the nature that space offers no air pressure to carry sound or oxygen to live. It cynically foreshadows our characters’s suffering simply to set up the theme park ride. That undercuts a mature sense of sympathy and instead entices the obsession with death common with today’s youth. How childish. At least All Is Lost begins with a voice-over apology (by Redford) over an abstract shot of a red cargo crate. It’s a thoughtful moment that encourages us to consider the world we live in – beyond the sea.
Gravity is only able to viscerally over-stimulate, and thereby underwhelm. The water and teardrops that land on the frame draw excessive attention to Cuaron’s technique, which removes us fundamentally from main character Dr. Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) isolation. Subliminally, this is Cuaron confessing that Gravity is all showmanship, all style, and the story is deliberately artificial. But where does that take us? Well, to an absolutely ludicrous finale.
But where Gravity fabricates hope out of its cynical tale (making it all the more repellent), All Is Lost at least finds a silver lining of nobility, all through Redford’s golden-boy valiance. The film is about persistence, David taking on Goliath, and as such it occasionally resonates. The problem is Chandor’s technique cannot convey that commanding juxtaposition of fear and beauty that epitomizes the deep blue sea. With phony, digitalized shots from the bottom of the sea looking up at the glistening surface (like outtakes from Life of Pi), the banal is now embraced for awe.
Both Gravity and All is Lost don’t emulate, they rehash. They jump from cynicism to optimism, but with no sincerity. Such hasty evocations are conceits, fickle notions that don’t hold together as a piece, but merely in the moment to trick the mind that something smart is happening on screen. That’s the ploy of Gravity and All Is Lost: their small-scaled, scantily-spoken stories sell pretend mastery. Because we’re so infested with loud and obnoxious Hollywood fodder, we champion polar opposites. Alas in the case of Gravity, All Is Lost, and many (but certainly not all) Hollywood films out there, these opposites attract.