Today, in Baltimore, three new films open, all of which tackle existential crises, and none of which are alike. In order of quality, I present my brief thoughts.
All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)
Opening today at the Charles Theater is J.C. Chandor’s second feature, All Is Lost. Chandor’s previous film, Margin Call, about the financial crisis of 2008, was all talk (in a good way), filled with sharp and witty dialogue and a cast of vivid characters. If ever a second work seemed, at first glance, the polar opposite of the first, this new movie is it. With only one character – a nameless man played by Robert Redford – and almost no words spoken on screen, All Is Lost is a bare-to-the-bone procedural thriller about a single man’s fight against almost-certain death. Made with skillful narrative economy and stark emotional intensity, All Is Lost is, like its predecessor, nearly perfect. I didn’t like the execution of the ending, but other than that, I was fully engaged in the fate of “Our Man” (as the credits list the protagonist). Chandor is definitely a writer/director to watch.
The film starts with a title card that reads, “1700 Nautical Miles from the Sumatra Straits.” Then, “13th of July, 4:50pm.” And then, Redford’s voice, saying, “I’m sorry.” This turns out to be a voiceover by Our Man (one of the few times we hear him speak), ostensibly reading a letter he has written to unnamed loved ones, as what looks like a shipping container or the hull of a capsized ship bobs in the foreground of a vast empty sea. Beyond the voiceover, we hear nothing but the sounds of water lapping against the metallic object. All is calm. And desolate. In some ways, perhaps, the story will not be that different from that of Margin Call, after all. There will be a crisis. It will be met, in some way, with great reserves of energy. Much will be lost. Afterwards, once the storm has passed, life will go on for those left standing, but the signs of destruction will remain. Chandor’s next film is called A Most Violent Year. Perhaps there’s a pattern.
The script – just 30 pages long and consisting almost entirely of prose description – is spare. We glean what we know from our own observations of what’s on screen. Once the voiceover ends, we plunge straight into the action, meeting Our Man in the flesh as he wakes up to the sound of a shipping container full of sneakers – fallen from a Maersk cargo vessel – piercing the hull of his yacht. He’s alone – for reasons left purposefully vague – far from land, with a now-busted navigation system and radio, and must figure out how to patch up his boat and get himself into the highly traveled Sumatra Straits in the hopes of being rescued by one of the very ships whose loose cargo has caused his crisis. For the rest of the film, we watch in amazement as this lone figure faces test after test, surviving each one through sheer force of will and physical endurance.
It’s a treat to see Redford in this movie. The film would simply not be the same with a different actor, and Chandor was brilliant to seek Redford out. We gain from the resonance that he brings to the part, and that we bring having seen him in so many other roles. In some ways, this reminds me of films like The Wild Bunch, where how we interpret the performance of the actors is directly informed by our long history watching them previously. In addition, Redford’s ability to give understated, thoughtful performances, as noted in David Edelstein’s review of All Is Lost, makes him an ideal choice for this role, regardless of what he has done before. He is perfect.
Not so perfect are the last few frames of the film, however. I love open-ended stories, but this one feels a bit too cute by half. I won’t spoil it, except to say that, in my opinion, if one is going to create an ending that leaves much to the imagination of the viewer, it is best to do so with one’s full commitment to the idea of open-endedness. Here, Chandor throws in a final transition that feels like a gimmick, and which is wholly unnecessary. Take that out, and the film – for me – would be flawless. As it is, it’s merely amazing.
A.O. Scott wrote an article in the New York Times recently about the post-summer blockbuster existential hero. What do you think? Do Gravity, Captain Phillips and All Is Lost share a common thread? Let me know!
Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, 2013)
Ender’s Game is based on the book by Orson Scott Card, published in 1985, and is directed by Gavin Hood, whose eclectic output includes Tsotsi and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It tells the story of young prepubescent Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield, quite fine), living on a future Earth that, 50 years prior to our story, has successfully repelled an alien invasion. Now the aliens (ant-like creatures called “Formics”) are coming back, and the only apparent way to defeat them, at least according to Colonel Graff (an appropriately gruff Harrison Ford), is to train young minds – more receptive to technological and strategic innovation, apparently – in the art of space combat. Young Ender – the third child in a family where the first two children washed out of combat school – is quickly singled out as humanity’s last great hope. Earth’s survival, it seems, is in his small hands.
I read the book years ago, and enjoyed it. It raises compelling moral issues about aggression, genocide and mercy in the context of what appears, at first, to be just another humans-vs-aliens story. Gavin Hood’s film does a respectable job translating the story to the screen. The IMAX images are beautiful – interestingly, this is one of the few 2D films where I actually thought it might have been even more successful in 3D – and most of the performances are solid. Viola Davis is underused, which is too bad, but Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld (as a fellow young combatant) more than hold their own. When Ben Kingsley shows up later in the story, as an older veteran, even his hammy performance does not take away from Butterfield’s marvelously restrained incarnation of Ender.
Ultimately, though, I was disappointed in the aliens, themselves, as I am in almost every film about beings from other planets (with the exception of the Alien series). Why does extra-terrestrial life always have to look and act like something recognizable to us? Why ants (this is obviously a problem for me in the book, as well)? Otherwise, I found the movie very entertaining, with well-choreographed battle sequences and a moving and engaging story. Unless you’re tired of science fiction after films like Oblivion and Elysium – and this is much better – I can recommend Ender’s Game. It lacks the subtlety of an All Is Lost, but it delivers the thrills.
About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013)
What is it with Rachel McAdams and her strange attraction to men who can travel through time? And in making really bad movies about them? This latest is even more unfocused and incomprehensible than The Time Traveler’s Wife. Blech. The movie needed a real editor and a director who wasn’t also the writer. It is very self-indulgent and I am appalled that anyone thought to waste resources on it.
The story is about how Domhnall Gleeson – somehow unable to find a girlfriend – is told, on his 21st birthday (why 21? who cares!), by his father (Bill Nighy), that the men in his family can travel through time. Just like that. But they can only revisit events from their own lives. Flash forward past all of the boring details of the next 30 minutes, and Gleeson finds himself in London, where he meets Rachel McAdams – somehow unable to find a boyfriend – and he uses his magic powers to win her heart. End of story. Except it’s not, and the film goes on for another hour of non-adventure adventures that just ………………………… failed to hold my interest.
So where’s the struggle? Well, Gleeson has to figure out what he needs to make himself happy, and what others in his life need to make themselves happy, but since we don’t care about any of the folks on screen, it’s a crisis in storytelling more than anything else. Enjoy!