James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Review (Theatrical): ALL IS LOST (2013)

An ocean of consciousness, but individuated nodes comprising our minds and bodies. We’re bobbing on the surface, mostly, or at times plunging to the depths, if we’ve taken up meditation, let’s say. But it’s difficult. We need solitude. Quiet. And time, in order to find ourselves. All good reasons to take a sailing trip around the world, the vastness of the seas providing both the space and environment to quiet the mind. And find the self, the true self that lies both within and without the physicalized body.

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But speaking of the body, whether we acquire inner peace or achieve satori on the way to nirvana, the combustion engine and other parts driving our experience here in the universe of tactile sensation that we call reality will wear out. Bit by bit, sometimes, or all at once. Painfully, often, and inevitably. Inexorably. We sail onward toward death.

We have no choice.

But on this journey, we are driven to persevere best we can. Or else, in our darkest moments of despair and desperation, give up.

In J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost, such an individual faces these questions, sailing the open ocean on his boat, the Virginia Jean. We don’t know his reasons for being on the vast and open Indian Ocean, alone, 1700 nautical miles from Sumatra. Maybe his retirement gift to himself. A lifelong dream. Or his chosen method of finding the solitude necessary to connect with the higher spirit. We don’t need to know, but he probably does. The reasons don’t matter.

As played by the venerable, rugged Robert Redford, we first hear his familiar voice over a black screen, telling us the truth we will all face at some point on our journey—that all is lost. When we see him, however, we are taken back eight days from the moment of his verbalized admittance that he has run out of options, at the moment he sleeps peacefully on his sailboat. But he’s awakened, rudely, from his slumber not by a bad dream, but contact with another actual physicalized object. And sea water rushing inside through the hull. The teak cabinetry, the electronic equipment, the small kitchen, a netted sack of fruit swaying back and forth. All this will be lost. The ocean will reclaim it all.

From here we spend 95 minutes with this unnamed character, doing all he can to preserve his vessel. But the water has another agenda in mind. Or perhaps it, like the Tao, moves not so much with specific purpose and agency, but rather as an is-ness ultimately neutral in nature—it moves to the left, it moves to the right. It has no plan. The ocean does not ‘want’ Redford dead. This will simply happen of its own accord. Part of the cycle.

But like a determined human facing health challenges—a diagnosis of cancer, let’s say, followed by a battle that causes other collateral damage, bit by bit, as the parts that aren’t necessarily sick begin also to wear out—he wants to live. He is not finished. He is resourceful—he is modern man, with tools, and knowhow, and spirited determination to overcome challenges.

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Is any challenge too big for modern man? We have yet to conquer death.

We have flown, dived to the bottom of our great oceans, exited our maternal sphere and visited the closest satellite (or maybe not). We’ve learned to manipulate and forge the stuff of our reality into shapes and objects and ideas, have managed to learn to craft waking dreams that may be experienced in a shared way: books, music recordings, and movies. But we cannot yet transcend death. We try; oh, do we try. But we cannot win that fight, which actually is more of argument. An argument with the nature of things, and that begins with a question:


Our narrator, however, has no time to ask why, only how: How may I transcend this situation?

Makeshift and temporary, he patches the hole, tries to get help via the electronic devices he’s collected, stuff utilized to remain safe and in contact with the world, but the seawater, gushing in at the exact gathering spot of these mad-made objects, has other ideas. All rivers flow to the sea, and the ocean of consciousness eventually reclaims us. Takes no notice of our crude tools, except perhaps to chuckle at the folly of our attempts to reshape the reality of nature into a vision of how it ought to be, including the notion of beating the game of decline and death. We age; we deny this, in any way we can. Cosmetic surgery. A flashy car. A younger mate, one who reminds us of how it used to be. We patch the hole.

But the ocean will not be denied. A storm is brewing, one that will toss and trouble us. Will demonstrate the true power at its disposal, which is beyond our boats, our bodies, our desires. Again, it is not evil; it wants nothing. It simply is. And will do what it will.

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As this gripping movie unfolds, the competence of the seaman is tested again and again. The stakes are raised. And we maintain the hope, like a person facing a terminal illness, that there is a way out. That rescue awaits, either owing to our own resourcefulness, or else to the external intervention of another party with the desire and ability to assist us. Light at the end of the tunnel.

Whether we as individuals live or die, however, matters not to the greater reality. Like enormous freighters passing by a bobbing, minuscule life raft that is our individuated physical self, the external world spins onward with an inertia almost beyond our imagination. And we are left to swirl in the wake. Unnoticed. Until we finally run out of options.

We are surrounded, then, by the same world we have always known, and in which we have existed in relative security and comfort. But like a stranded sailor running out of potable water, yet paradoxically surrounded by more water than any one man could ever need to survive, we have no succor, no salvation, only waiting. For the end.

All is Lost, similar to the season’s other man vs. nature epic Gravity, offers us a much more elegant allegory for our life-journey than the bombastic, breathless, impossible journey of Sandy Bullock from shuttle to space station to landing capsule against the howling void of empty and airless space.

Gravity wants to have a greater scope than this movie, however, and does, albeit in a much noisier and frankly incredible (in the literal sense) manner. While Gravity’s themes are similar, it wishes to posit a broader view, that of the entire traverse of existence, birth, death, and including the possibility of resurrection and rebirth in the form of reincarnation. All is Lost, on the other hand, stays grounded in the possible, and the knowable, which is that we may fight and battle, but any rebirth we may have occurs only on the other side of an essentially unknowable omega point, beyond which lies either nothing or everything. We will only find out after we hurtle into the light at the end of the tunnel, embrace it, and let it carry us away.

The message in the bottle of All is Lost, one of the year’s best and most accomplished American films, is that hope floats, and an answer awaits, if only we have the strength, intelligence, and resourcefulness to accept that endings aren’t always the end—they may only seem that way at the time. Maybe there will be rescue for us at the other end of the long tunnel. But we’ll have to find out later. We’ll have to have faith—in ourselves, our fellow man, and nature itself, which loves us unconditionally, even if at times it seems it only wants to destroy us.

My highest recommendation goes out this moving, harrowing, brilliant film. Congrats in advance to its sole performer, as a likely Best Actor statue awaits for Redford, who deserves the honor both for the performance itself, as well as his own ability to remain vital and elemental to the art of moviemaking. Kudos to all involved in this triumphal cinematic accomplishment.


About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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