I recently watched ALL IS LOST (2013). I had low expectations. Why? The title of a film can tell you a lot about the minds behind it (or the tendency of my mind, like all minds, to judge). Some film titles are plain clunky. Take DEEP IMPACT. Exactly. I thought this title was less than compelling. There were other reasons. CAST AWAY (2000) and LIFE OF PI illustrated the obvious: that it takes two to tango. Or three. Or four. Or more.
Drama is emotion in action. Drama is a vital interaction between people whose characters and agendas to not align. This interaction will always be conflict of some form or other.
The conversation with death requires no words.
In CAST AWAY and LIFE OF PI, as in ALL IS LOST, the conflict is largely between a human and death. While this is the most common conflict there is for all living things, it only makes for good drama when there is more than one human involved. CAST AWAY demonstrated this. We spent too much time with Tom Hanks’ character Chuck Noland on a desert island. There was little dialogue. No dialectic. Ultimately, for me, that was the basic problem with this film. The solution would have been to map Noland’s wife’s arc as she came to terms with his loss and then met someone else in parallel with the ‘main’ drama on the desert island. This would have imbued Noland’s experiences with vastly more dramatic weight. We could have watched him survive at all costs and find his way back to his wife knowing she had moved on. This opportunity was lost, and the film lacked dramatic substance accordingly.
LIFE OF PI also demonstrated that there is only so much time a film audience can spend with a solo character in a constricted environment/situation. In this case the solo character was a boy: Pi. The tiger did not satisfy the audience’s need for dramatic interaction because it was a tiger. Dangerous, yes; but capable of human interaction, no. Worse, it was a CGI tiger, and this undermined its reality as intuited by the viewer (CGI is fine, but only if it is backed up by a story that works, plausible emotions, a coherent, compelling dramatic structure, and interactive characters we can buy into). Worse still, later in the film the adult Pi tells us that everything we have just seen may not have happened anyway. All audiences wish to be taken on a journey of the imagination. No audience wishes to be fooled. There is a very big difference. PI made the point that visuals cannot make up for dramatic substance and emotional content based on/exploring contrasting agendas between people.
I therefore went into ALL IS LOST expecting little. But I got a lot. I think part of the reason this film worked so well for me was Robert Redford’s internalisation. Redford has always endowed the characters he plays with a thoughtful inner dialogue. Perhaps this dialogue substituted for the spoken dialogue common to most dramas. But it was more than that. I think Our Man was easier to root for and care about because of his age. Imagine if Our Man had been, say, 30. He would have been stronger, and so we might have worried for him less.
OK, there is also a subjective dimension to this: Robert Redford was a childhood icon to me; so perhaps I wanted my childhood icon (and thus my childhood) to survive. Perhaps. All I know is that I found ALL IS LOST utterly compelling. I didn’t want to miss a moment. And that’s a hell of a thing to pull off when the drama involves only one character.
A similar film (character alone against the odds/nature) that I thought achieved what ALL IS LOST achieved in very different ways was 127 HOURS (2010). Danny Boyle layered in trapped character Aran Ralston’s inner journey in a kaleidoscopic way that transported us through space, time and psychology very well. This journey saved us from the problems that in my opinion made CAST AWAY and LIFE OF PI less than they could have been.
So when it comes to films about solo characters battling the odds, all is not lost.