1. I never got to write about Gravity in this space—Grierson took that for us—but I found it as terrific as most people did. Dizzying, awesome, disorienting, terrifying: It's earned all the praise it has received. But I couldn't get past one thing: Didn't the Sandra Bullock character's backstory seem a bit, oh, engineered? (Spoilers here.) Certainly, you're sympathetic to her character; the loss of a child is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a person. But do we need that? Isn't it a little cheap? I mean, for crying out loud, she's floating untethered through space, with no communication with Earth, running out of air, with satellite wreckage attacking her every hour or so, and oh yeah your space station is on fire. It's difficult to see the necessity of manufacturing more drama there. You can make a strong argument that Gravity is a better movie if there is no backstory whatsoever. Survival is its own story arc.
2. So, then along comes All Is Lost, a movie that seems designed specifically to address that argument. The movie has one character, one who barely speaks and tells us almost nothing about himself, where he came from, why he's here, where he's going. We don't even learn his name (he's listed as "Our Man" in the credits). He is played by Robert Redford, and he has been in a boating accident. When the movie begins, he is waking up from a nap to discover that he has a hole in his boat. The water rushing in destroys his radio and his navigation systems. He has only his wits to survive. And that's all we learn.
3. Seriously, I can count the biographical information we learn about "Our Man" on one hand. He is older and wealthy; he is an experienced sailor; he doesn't curse much but does when something has gone extremely wrong; he feels slightly bad about something involving his family; and he looks a shit-ton like Robert Redford. The movie, determinedly, never tells us anything more about him, and it is about nothing but his quest to live. We see him repair the boat, sail into a storm, try to conserve water, inflate a life boat. There is not musing on humanity, or any sort of existential crisis. We watch bad things happen to Redford, and then we watch him try to fix them to stay alive. Other than a letter we see Redford read, there are perhaps six words said in the whole film. His survival is the whole arc.
4. So, now that I've seen a movie that excises the backstory I said Gravity didn't need ... I dunno, I think I sorta wish All Is Lost had more backstory. When you get rid of everything—when the whole movie is Redford being rained on, turning various dials and trying to distill water—you end up with little to grab onto. You find yourself admiring the audacity of the experiment—writer-director J.C. Chandor, who made the excellent Margin Call, is nothing if not ambitious—without necessarily finding yourself swept away by it. Chandor is a straightforward, linear filmmaker, which fits the material here; it's all wonky and procedural and arranging pieces in the right order at the right time. It's impressive, but I'm not sure the movie is as arresting and absorbing as it wants to be. You find yourself, like Chandor and his lone character, intellectualizing the experience rather than living it. You find yourself wanting more.
5. A lot of this comes from Redford's performance, which is committed but still somehow distant. You instinctively cheer for him, but you spend more of your time thinking, "Wow, Robert Redford really went all out in this movie," than "Oh, man, I hope this guy survives!" Like the film, it's so low-key that it barely registers. (It will nevertheless win him tons of awards, I suspect; it's the sort of performance that's better in narrative than in artistry.) Like Gravity, the movie still taps into that specific early-21st-century fear of being alone, that horrible silence of no longer being connected to anything. And unlike Gravity, it doesn't cheat by giving its lead character instant sympathy via transplanted backstory. Also unlike Gravity, though, it isn't a breathtaking piece of intense, immersive pure filmmaking. I'm glad All Is Lost exists. I respect what it's trying to do, and its attempts to overcome the constraints it gave itself. But it evaporates the minute it's over. It's a noble, and failed, experiment.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.