Usually, when I do these (too infrequent) double feature features, I connect one current film with a film from the back catalog: “The King’s Speech” with “Richard III,” or “Tree of Life” with “A Serious Man.” But every now and again, Hollywood serves up two movies that are obviously intended by fate to be seen together. This year is one such, and the pairing is “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón (director of “Children of Men” and “Y Tu Mamá También“) and “All Is Lost,” directed by J. C. Chandor (director of “Margin Call,” my favorite film about the financial crisis and, hence, a primary object of my envy since I wish I could have written a film that good).
I almost don’t feel like I need to explain why. But I will anyway.
“Gravity” tells the story of Sandra Bullock, rookie astronaut, struggling home to earth all on her own after space junk cripples the shuttle that brought her to orbit in the first place. Everything that can go wrong does, and at one point she gives up and prepares for death. But her final brainstorm actually works, and, amazingly, she makes it (we presume – the movie ends when she finally reaches dry land but is still far from civilization).
“All Is Lost,” on the other hand, tells the story of Robert Redford, wealthy yachtsman, struggling to get back to land all on his own after sea junk (a stray shipping container) cripples the 39-foot sailboat that brought him to the middle of the Indian Ocean in the first place. Everything that can go wrong does, and at one point he gives up and prepares for death. But his final brainstorm actually works, and, amazingly, he makes it (we presume – the movie ends when he is swimming to the surface picked up).
Both movies appear to be paradigmatic “man (or woman) versus wild” contests. But both are ultimately more interested in charting an internal spiritual journey than in showing an audience how human beings can win a round in the endless war against pitiless nature. It’s in the differences between those journeys, and between the two movie star protagonists, that the contrast between the films primarily lies. Where one film runs before the wind of our era, the other tacks against it.
* * *
When I saw “Gravity,” I went into the theater thinking about “Apollo 13,” the Ron Howard film about the successful effort to bring the astronauts home from a failed moon shot. That film focused on the grit and practical ingenuity of the men who made America’s adventure in space possible. It was about a set of virtues, and more specifically about watching those virtues in action. And, because it told the story of a failed mission, it was also (like “Argo,”) very much a movie about America in the 1970s, about certain classic American virtues being pressed into service to salvage as much as possible from a mission that is doomed to fail.
But “Gravity” isn’t really that kind of movie – because it isn’t really interested in practical ingenuity. There’s a contradiction at the heart of “Gravity” with respect to realism. Enormous effort has been put into getting the physics right, and that effort pays off magnificently. The film is stunningly beautiful – more than that, it is sublime (to use the Burkean distinction). The opening shot, which must be something like fifteen minutes long, will leave your jaw slack, and when you’ve stopped staring you’ll realize that, amazingly, you’ve been able to keep oriented when there is no up nor down. That’s a heck of a cinematographic achievement. Even when things start to go wrong, and the frame fills with objects moving in trajectories we never see them follow on earth, we still somehow always know where we are. And then there are the little directorial choices here have a huge impact in terms of creating a feeling of realism – for example, it’s amazing how much is communicated simply by massive collisions between space ships produce no sound. Cuarón’s primary commitment in this film is to give us some sense of what movement looks like up there in orbit, and hence to what walking in space might feel like. He succeeds entirely.
But what actually happens in the film requires enormous suspension of disbelief. [Spoilers follow.] Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, doesn’t just survive being thrown from the structure where she’s working when the space debris hits. She makes her way to a space station 100 kilometers away. She crawls inside that station, only to be nearly trapped by a fire that breaks out inside. She escapes the fire into the reentry craft, and figures out how to launch the craft away from the station, only to discover that the chute, which has deployed prematurely, has gotten tangled around the struts of the station. She gets back out and frees the craft from the tangled parachute – in the middle of a hailstorm of space debris that annihilates the space station. She escapes the millions of fragments of flying debris, gets back into the spaceship, only to discover it’s out of fuel. She figures out how to jerry-rig it to fly anyway, and makes her way to yet another space station (a Chinese one). She’s got no thrusters to maneuver with, so she bails out of the ship and pilots herself successfully to that station using a fire extinguisher. She gets into the other station’s reentry vehicle, figures out how to fly it even though all instructions are in Chinese, and finally survives a reentry even though her capsule is tumbling rump over teakettle.
That’s rather more than six impossible things to believe before breakfast. Which is fine – this is a movie. But the fact that Stone is able to pull off this series of wildly improbably feats tells us what kind of movie we’re in. For all it’s commitment to realism in the depiction of this strange and hostile environment, we’re not in a movie about what it takes to survive in that environment, in terms of practical knowledge or native virtues. And the proper point of comparison isn’t “Apollo 13” but “Life of Pi.”
Early on in the film, we learn that Stone is emotionally dead as a consequence of the death of her young daughter. (She’s not named “Stone” for nothing.) There’s no mention of a husband or any other family; so far as we know, she is entirely alone, nobody looking up at her, waiting for her to come home. (The weakest sequences in “Apollo 13,” by the way, were the shots of the “home front” – none of the astronauts’ wives had any character, and they had nothing much to do but look worried.) But she has a mentor figure: Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), commander of her mission. He draws her out, rescues her from her space tumble, and then heroically (and completely stoically) sacrifices himself so that she might live.
Kowalski’s there to remind her of a reason to live, but also to communicate the message that if you know that reason – if your soul is properly oriented – you will always either find a way to live, or face death with his extraordinary equanimity. In the most ultimate sense, your fate is entirely in your hands, and is determined by how in tune you are with the universe. He even appears later as a ghost to give her the crucial insight that enables her to finish her journey – which she finishes flying her ship essentially by intuition, without instruments (since they are all in Chinese anyway). He might as well be named Obi Wan Kenobi.
Stone’s personal journey, meanwhile, is clearly signposted as such over and over again. All of the spaceships she pilots have a religious figure above what I can only think of as the dashboard (an icon on the Russian craft, a smiling Buddha on the Chinese – this cheerful ecumenical approach to religiosity is another similarity to “Life of Pi”). When Bullock first makes it into the ISS, she pulls off her space suit and gulps in the air (she had run out just before getting in), then floats, for a moment, before the airlock, in a semi-fetal position, the tube from her suit floating just behind her in the position of an umbilicus. And when she gets back to earth, she blows the hatch immediately upon landing (wouldn’t you know – there’s another fire) and has to escape the capsule into the ocean, shed her space suit skin, and swim to shore. A verdantly Edenic shore – but uninhabited.
That emptiness is not an accident. For all that Stone’s journey is supposedly about re-awakening to human connection – getting over the loss of her daughter and finding someone to look up at her and hope that she comes home safely – solitude is fundamental to her journey. The stoic Kowalski, though he won’t stop talking for even a second, is ultimately self-sufficient enough to be content to die gazing at the beauty of the Ganges (note, not the Amazon or the Danube, but a religiously potent river) from space. And one doesn’t get the feeling that he has anybody looking up at him, hoping he’ll come home.
At the end, Stone is alive again, and the world is alive as well; she’s no longer in the cold darkness of space. But she is defiantly solitary. Because she’s found what she needs inside her.
* * *
It’s not incidental that an essential self-sufficiency – cheerful, adaptable, ready for any challenge – is our civilization’s paramount economic virtue. And it’s what the Robert Redford character embodies at the start of “All Is Lost,” a radically different film from “Gravity” even though it has a very similar premise.
Redford is the only person in the film, and he present himself as quite thoroughly self-sufficent – he must be, or he wouldn’t be sailing the middle of the Indian Ocean without a crew. And he doesn’t even paint a volleyball to talk to; there is virtually no dialogue, far less than in “Gravity,” a film that takes place in a world without air and, hence, without sound. (I assume that a major motivation for Chandor to make this film was just to see if it could be done – to make a nearly dialogue-free, one-man movie. Kudos to him even for trying, but the more impressive fact is that he succeeded.) He’s self-motivated as well – he is not in the middle of the ocean performing any social function, or on any assignment. He’s there because he’s there. In any event, he is alone, and plainly considers himself sufficient as such. And we know that he is supposed to be a representative character, a symbol of our age, right from his name. Which he doesn’t have. In the script, he’s known simply as “Our Man.”
What kind of man he is we have to infer, because, unlike “Gravity,” “All Is Lost” declines to give us any backstory. We open on a calm sea in flat, bleak light, and hear Robert Redford in voice over reading a last letter to – well, we don’t know to whom; he names no wife, no children. It is addressed, it would seem, to the universe at large. And it’s an apology, but Our Man doesn’t say what he’s sorry for, what he did wrong or to whom. He says with some pride that he fought until the end, but he wonders whether that means anything. All he knows is that he’s sorry. The letter is almost a perfect inversion of the sentiment on which Ryan Stone concludes her journey.
But, as we flash back to the accident that put Our Man adrift, details accumulate that enable us to infer what kind of man he is. His ship is a late-1970s-era yacht, nicely appointed but not particularly up to date. This is a wealthy man, but not a billionaire, and a man who harkens back to an earlier era, when he was in his prime. He wakes to seawater pouring in through a hole in the hull, and ruining his electronics – none of which are waterproof; our first indication that this is not a man actually prepared for any eventuality. It’s a bad break, but Our Man doesn’t panic. He investigates the hole – his sailboat was hulled by an errant shipping container of sneakers. He gets the sailboat off the container and sets to work, methodically, setting the ship right – patching the hull, pumping out the water, and rinsing the salt out of his ruined radio. Then, climbing the mast to repair a broken circuit, Our Man spots a storm coming. He battens down the hatches – and then he shaves, expertly enough that there’s not a nick on him.
The shaving scene is crucial for telling us what kind of man this is. He is not shaving to make an impression on anybody else (as, if I may juxtapose the sublime and the ridiculous, Crocodile Dundee did); he’s not preening for the cameras like a character on a Discovery Channel show. (I suspect many will come to this movie expecting a version of that kind of ersatz survivalism – more to the point, I wonder whether Our Man came up with the idea for this voyage by watching too much Bear Grylls.) Because there is nobody else there, nobody to impress but himself. This is a man, the gesture says, of stable habits that have served him well, that he doesn’t intend to abandon in a moment of crisis, and also a man of some personal vanity. And this is the moment that tells us: this man is not going to make it.
It’s been fascinating to read the comments by experienced sailors on this film, because they are generally contemptuous of Our Man, calling him a weekend sailor, in over his head, and making one rookie mistake after another. As a non-sailor, I couldn’t possibly see most of these, but it was clear to me watching the film that we were not supposed to infer Our Man’s great skill so much as we were to infer his calm self-confidence – true self-confidence, not mere arrogance. This is a man who has seen successfully through many crises before. It makes sense that he assumes he can handle this one. It also makes sense that he would make rookie mistakes, because he is in over his head. But he makes them calmly, confidently, making the best decisions he knows how all along the way.
Another difference: “All Is Lost” is much less invested in showing us the extraordinary environment of the ocean than “Gravity” is in showing us space. That’s partly a function of the different vantage point you have in orbit versus on the ocean’s surface, but it’s also a difference in the stories being told. In “Gravity” we get lots of panoramic footage that places us in context, that displays all the splendor of Earth, the cold vastness of the heavens, and the fragile elegance of our creations that hover between. We have the filmmaker’s God’s-eye view of reality. In “All Is Lost,” by contrast, the camera stays on Redford nearly all of the time, and so we experience the storm from an entirely human vantage point. When Our Man gets tossed overboard, we go over with him, and frankly we can’t see much. When the yacht is overturned by a particularly ferocious wave, we’re below decks with Our Man; the picture tumbles as the floor becomes the ceiling and then the floor again, but we don’t see the vessel dismasted – an obvious shot for a movie about a storm and shipwreck – until Our Man comes up and sees the damage himself. Budgetary considerations were undoubtedly one reason for that choice, but Chandor makes a virtue of necessity. He doesn’t personify nature as an antagonist. Nature is just reality.
Once his sailboat is wrecked, Our Man abandons ship into an inflatable life raft, and hopes for rescue. He charts his drift into the shipping lanes between East Asia and the Cape, and stands at the ready when he’s in the zone. But he’s rebuffed by two enormous container ships (the vessels responsible for his desperate situation in the first place) that pass extremely close to his little raft; nobody even notices his flares. It’s perhaps too direct a symbol – the indifference of commerce to anyone tossed overboard – and I wondered: isn’t anybody ever on deck on these ships? But perhaps that’s really the point: there’s almost no crew, and nobody is on deck. The economic system is more like pitiless nature than like anything human.
His last hope lost, Our Man prepares for death by sending his empty final message in the proverbial glass vessel (a jar in this case rather than a bottle). And then, an unexpected hope flickers. In the middle of a dark night, he sees a light on the water. He has only one flare left, and, clearly worried it will be insufficient, he lights a fire, setting the lifeboat itself aflame, and jumps into the water. Before the fire is even out, he sinks below the surface, clearly exhausted, and watches the circle of fire and the echoing circle of the moon from below as he sinks. The image is striking, and clearly intended as a symbol – it was the first image in the film to hit me that way, and for that reason it jarred. And, lo and behold, the fire trick works. A small (human-scale) boat comes to rescue him, and, surprised by his sudden good fortune, Our Man swims to the surface, and to safety.
It is, again, a reversal of the progression in “Gravity.” Where Ryan Stone learned self-sufficiency from a kind of stoic, that with enough confidence and grit you can overcome any obstacle (or face death calmly when there truly is no way), Our Man learns, finally, his utter insufficiency. He faces death not calmly, but exhausted, emptied, having burned his last earthly refuge and surrendered to the waves. And then, when he has finally given up, he’s saved.
I admit, I wasn’t crazy about that ending. It felt like a note of grace that was unconnected to the rest of the film, which didn’t traffic in those kinds of quasi-theological notions. Our Man is deluded about his self-sufficiency, yes, but I didn’t think he was deluded about the pitilessness of the universe. To put it another way, I’m pretty sure Werner Herzog would have let him drown.
But if we must carry around a “notion” about the universe, the idea that we have to surrender our earthly hopes to experience the gratitude of salvation sits better with me than the uplift of “Gravity.”