“Gravity,” “All is Lost” and the Will to Survive
Often in movies when a character is diagnosed with facing their assured fate from a hospital bed, a doctor will ask that character’s loved one if they’re “a fighter.” The response received is always affirmative. Assuming it’s the truth, this guarantees the dying character will outlive their initial prognosis through sheer force of will.
I’ve often wondered if I were ever faced with such a quandary if I could categorize myself as “a fighter.” I’d always assumed that was a trait I possessed, but I haven’t really been faced with many near-death scenarios to know for sure. The one moment that leaps to mind when I thought I was certainly a goner, was attempting a flip on a cousin’s trampoline. I’d deftly executed this maneuver a number of times, but somehow misjudged part of my move, landing awkwardly and knocking the wind out of myself. I couldn’t breathe and based on how I landed, I assumed I had broken my back and my life was about to end due to the lack of what any living body needs: oxygen. I tried to call out for my parents through silence. I certainly hadn’t given up hope, but I thought my life was at least ruined. I fought then, but all I suffered was having the wind knocked out of me. What a baby.
As is custom with Hollywood from time-to-time, two movies dealing with similar storylines and themes were released to the public in a short amount of time. Though I have zero inkling that this was due to studio one-upmanship, it makes it easy to look at the two films and compare their similarities. Both Alphonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost” essentially take one isolated character, put them on the outskirts of Earth (space in “Gravity” and the practically uncharted sea in “All is Lost”), stranding them with little to no hope of survival. However, in both films, the characters have the will to survive, most likely taking them a little beyond my personal ability to relate.
In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone doesn’t begin her journey alone. She’s accompanied by an unknown piece of human cannon fodder as well as the jovial veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski. It’s only when things go awry when a meteor shower destroys the satellite the crew is working on, does Stone lose human contact. Our Man, as Robert Redford’s character in “All is Lost” is referred to in the end credits of the film, starts in isolation. But his isolation is by choice. He calmly arises in his tiny ship to the sound and feeling of water sloshing into his cabin, courtesy of a hole punctured in the side of his watercraft by a floating shipping container. Whereas Stone jumps to DEFCON 1 panic mode, Our Man patiently devises a solution to his problem and executes it.
The level of urgency shown by these characters reveals them to be complete opposites. Ryan Stone is a fairly young woman whose involvement with the space program is still new and fresh. Our Man is a weathered senior handling himself and his boat with the precision that only comes from time and familiarity.
Whereas their levels of experience differ completely, they both make similar choices, albeit in different places through their films. Stone’s tragic backstory is gradually revealed through her communications with Kowalski, but when she loses him, she loses hope. She resigns herself to succumb to the vast emptiness of space until she has an epiphany, soldiering on until her survival is imminent. Our Man is determined to win against the sea at all costs. He faces hope-sucking event after hope-sucking event, like brutal storms, busted radio batteries, lack of food and the eventual capsizing of his ship. Each time, he comes back for more. Figuring out one more possible tactic. Drudging up optimism where it should have been snared away. It makes a tortuous watch for the audience, but you can’t help by admire the courage until he eventually decides what we might have at the start of the film and allows his fate to emerge before him.
It’s interesting to note that the ends of both films have been up to audience interpretation. I believe “Gravity” is far more concrete than “All is Lost,” as there’s just more evidence supporting its final few minutes. “All is Lost” has only a few frames of possible redemption which seem contrary to the philosophy of the previous 100 minutes. However, as an optimist, a dreamer and firm believer in film-as-truth, I’m confident in choosing to interpret the uplifting finales to the thought of anything dour. But the thought of my being able to pull out all stops in the face of the adversity Stone and Our Man face is very much in question. Sometimes movies tell you something you might never have known about yourself. These two made me wonder about something I hope I never really have to find out.