The vast ocean.
What do they have in common?
Neither is a place to be lost alone.
And that’s why the movies Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock) and All Is Lost (Robert Redford’s latest film) are the same basic story set in two different hostile-to-humans-locales.
Up In The Air
In Gravity (which I reviewed last October), Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a “newbie” astronaut who is doing a repair job in space when things “Go South” (or in whichever direction things go when things go bad in the airless environment miles above Planet Earth.)
The Space Shuttle in which Stone and her fellow astronauts have voyaged toward the stars is destroyed. Her only hope for survival is to use her jetpack t0 propel herself toward a safe haven: The International Space Station.
And then, somehow, she has to get back to Earth.
To refresh your recollection of the movie, here’s its trailer.
Ed Harris, who in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 portrayed a real-life NASA employee, Gene Kranz of “Mission Control” at the Houston Space Center, plays a similar role in Gravity, but this time you don’t see him on-screen wearing a fancy vest made by his wife. He’s simply the voice of Stone’s home, trying to connect with her.
For most of the time that Gravity runs, Bullock is on her own. Sure, she’s gone through extensive training prior to making her first trip into space, but trying to save her own skin—albeit with help from “Is-He-Really-There?” Kowalski, who fades in and out of view—is a pushing-the-envelope experience for her. And during the last half of the movie, you’re sitting on the edge of your seat wondering if she’s going to live to tell about what she’s going through.
Down to Earth
As with Gravity, not long after All Is Lost begins, calamity strikes: Redford’s 39’ sailboat is “holed” by a giant metal shipping container that floated into his path, apparently after it had fallen off a large, but not-seen-on-screen, commercial ocean-going vessel.
Redford’s “Our Man” (as he is listed in the film’s credits; we know him by no other name) calmly (for the most part) uses his intellectual powers to overcome the many life-threatening obstacles he encounters while trying to extricate himself from his shipwrecked state.
The movie’s trailer gives you a salt-air taste of the trouble he runs into, or that which runs into him.
But unlike Stone, “Our Man” is all alone. He has no Kowalski to turn to for help. In fact, he never talks to anyone, and hardly ever to himself.
In Gravity, you hear “Houston” on “space radio.” In All Is Lost, a voice briefly responds to the distress call “Our Man” sent out via his boat’s marine radio.
But except for a single word, his character never speaks again, and there is no dialogue with another actor.
In fact, there are no actors save Redford in All Is Lost, not even one born from a computer.
Who The Heck Are You?
In Gravity, we learn a lot about Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, as she fights her way back to Earth.
But we never know anything about Redford’s “Our Man.” Not his name. Not why he is sailing alone on the ocean, far from land. Nothing about his family, or even if he has one.
And This Is How It Ends
Like many people, I tend to go bonkers if a “cliff-hanger” movie leaves me hanging on a cliff, wondering out loud, “How does this story end?”
That’s the case with both Gravity and All Is Lost. At any moment during either film, the main character could meet The Grim Reaper. But over and over again, that doesn’t happen.
And as each film nears its conclusion, there’s one last opportunity for the hero or heroine to die in a blaze of glory.
But does he or she actually survive that final appointment with Death, or is the demise an off-screen, after-the-movie-ends occurrence? Is there ever a “homecoming” with hugs, kisses, and a parade down Main Street?
With both Gravity and All Is Lost, these are unanswered, rhetorical questions that left me with a sense of dissatisfaction after the credits began rolling.
I need to know what happened at the end!
Neither Gravity nor All Is Lost are documentaries.
Nor do either appear to be based on a true story of a real person’s death-defying experience.
They are dramatic, fictional stories, intended to evoke a wide-range of human emotions commonly shared by a large audience.
Astronauts and sailors are likely to criticize both films for failure to present a true picture of what they or their colleagues would have done under similar circumstances.
For example, astronauts Jeffrey Hoffman and Don Pettit discuss spaceflight and the action scenes in Gravity in this episode of NPR’s “Science Friday.”
Although when I was a kid I was convinced that someday I would be a “space cadet” journeying among the planets and stars, I have never traveled off-planet.
On the other hand, I spent over twenty years sailing, mostly on San Francisco Bay, but also in the Pacific Northwest, in Southern California waters, and in the British Virgin Islands, often on boats similar to the one Redford was aboard in All Is Lost.
I have never experienced the type of emergency “Our Man” faced, but my training as a sailor led me to conclude that at least in theory, Redford’s character’s methodical approach to solving each in a series of problems that arose after the shipping container whacked his vessel, seemed textbook in nature.
But for a much more detailed technical analysis of the film, I turned to Tony Johnson, who chronicled his two-and-half-year around-the-world sailing voyage aboard Maverick—a 39’ sailboat of similar size, design and vintage to that “sailed” by Redford in All Is Lost— in his book, The Captain and Mr. Shrode.
Here are Johnson’s observations of when the film departs from sailing reality:
“It seems to me that…the worst problem is that [the filmmakers] can’t decide whether to portray him as either an unprepared fool (he has no backup battery-operated GPS or VHF radio and no EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon], all of which were available at the time period this movie is set) or as a pretty competent sailor (as he shows himself to be when he uses his skills and gear to go up the mast at sea). You’ve got to have some consistency in the character, and the guy that can get up the mast is not the same guy who has no backup VHF radio.
“But there are a whole list of other things that simply misrepresent how things work [at sea], in addition to his wildly inconsistent skill level:
“1) If you hit a container hard enough to put a big hole in your boat while you sleep, it won’t just wake you up. You’ll have a concussion. Boats are really tough. It takes a very violent collision to make that kind of hole in the hull.
“2) A knife will not sever the rigging. You’ll need a bolt cutter or hacksaw, both of which would be carried aboard. And cutting one wire won’t do the job; there will be several to get rid of. There was quite a satisfying twang when the wire parted, though.
“3) His first action after the collision, even though he sees the water coming in, is not to pop his head out and then immediately start the bilge pump, but to go up on deck and take his time looking around while water fills up the boat up to a level where the electrical system is shorted out so that the pump becomes inoperable and the engine won’t start. The bilge pump would of course be automatic anyway in any seagoing boat, and the idea that this isn’t fitted [to Redford’s boat] is absurd. There should be a second electric bilge pump for emergencies, plus at least one manual backup. He is shown carving a handle for the manual pump. Absolutely amazing. We had two manual backups and at least four handles [during Maverick’s circumnavigation]. Actually, I don’t even remember him trying to start the engine. He is shown as contemplating the situation and spending awhile analyzing things and meditating. Time’s a-wasting, man!
“4) After getting the boat free from the container, he tacks, putting the hole to leeward, which of course admits a large volume of water. Had he started the engine (see #3 above) and doused [i.e., taken down] his sails, he could have kept the boat level in the calm seas and kept the water [flowing into] the boat to a more manageable amount. The hole was well above the waterline… He bangs into the container, not bothering to put out fenders [i.e., those “rubber bumpers” that keep a boat from smacking up against things], risking yet another hole.
“5) His hull repair was ineffective. First, you can wrap a spare sail around the entire hull to stem the flow [of water into the boat]. This is far from a complete solution to the problem but it would dramatically decrease the influx of water, giving him more time. Then he could have launched the dinghy, put a piece of plywood (which he should have had aboard but if not, he could have used the [dining] table) over the hole, through-bolted it to the hull, and then filled the gaps with epoxy and fiberglass. It doesn’t have to be absolutely waterproof, it just needs to fill the hole and be robust. We, of course, had all the gear and wood required to do this [aboard Maverick].
“6) No one says “This is an S.O.S. call.” It’s “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday [followed by the name of the vessel, its estimated position, and the nature of the emergency].” How does a sailor not know that? We teach it in our [introduction to sailing] classes and I’m sure every other boating class does, too.
“7) Why does he climb the mast? How would the collision have broken loose a screwed-in coaxial fitting at the masthead [which connected the mast-top antenna to the boat’s VHF marine radio], and how could he have diagnosed that from the deck?
“8) He seems to have no self-steering gear, neither autopilot nor windvane, though there is some kind of broken gear on the transom. He is also lacking solar panels, for backup power, and jacklines [to which the sailor ties himself or herself to the boat, but which allows the sailor to safely move about on deck], to keep you onboard [or at least tied to the boat so it can’t sail away and leave you behind if you do fall overboard]. No single-hander could survive without mechanical steering to use when napping, yet they show [Redford’s character] napping. You wouldn’t even get to LA. And few bluewater [i.e., ocean-going] sailors would leave port without the other two. (To be fair, [Bernard] Moitessier and Robin Knox-Johnston both did solo circumnavigations without things like this and without a lot of other stuff. But that was in the sixties, and those guys are absolute legends, not like our hero Redford.)
“9) [Redford’s character] is shown peacefully sleeping below during the ferocious storm. But his unconscious body would have been violently thrown to the cabin sole [i.e., floor] in these conditions. Been there [, done that]. The violence in a small boat in a storm is quite unlike anything you would normally experience, even on a carnival ride.
“10) Butterfly bandages won’t stick to wet skin. It’s a minor detail, but tons of [inaccurate details in a movie] like this add up.
“11) You need a nautical almanac and sight reduction tables to do celestial navigation, plus an accurate watch. So even if he read the book and figured out how to do it, he wouldn’t have the necessary references. Also, you don’t get a “fix” (shown as an “X” on the chart in the movie), you just get a line [of position, on which you are imprecisely located], which is too complicated to explain. We had three sextants and all the necessary books [on Maverick]. This is bordering on too picky, I admit.
“There are more [points I could raise], but I think [what I’ve said already is enough]. Some liked the movie anyway, but most sailors were aghast. Even without all the above reservations, I found it slow, but that is a subjective opinion.
“I think the same movie could have been made with a better eye to realistic seamanship. He’s all the way out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and there’s little likelihood he could have made it that far with the skills he exhibits. On the upside, the footage of the boat at sea, and the underwater shots, are at times quite nice.”
Hollywood, in the interests of dramatic creativity, might employ “artistic license” to avoid confusing movie-goers with too many technical details that may, as in the case of sailing, relate to an activity in which they’ve never engaged.
On The “Big Screen”
Seeing Gravity in the movie theater helped me appreciate why the film would later win seven Academy Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Directing, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects.
Gravity is definitely a movie that one should have experienced on “The Big Screen.”
I probably would have enjoyed All Is Lost (which was nominated for and won a few film awards last year) more if I had been able to see it while it was still playing in local theaters.
But like the best laid plans of “Our Man,” and lesser mice and men, one doesn’t always make it to the theater before a film sails away and is replaced by the latest “block-buster.”
And so I was relegated to watching the Redford film on the much smaller screen of the LCD TV in my home, which was okay, but didn’t as effectively communicate the scale of “Our Man’s” disaster at sea as would have been the case if I’d been able to see it “At The Movies.”
(Gravity, All Is Lost, and Apollo 13 are available in a number of video formats from Amazon.com. You can buy paperback or Kindle e-book versions of Tony Johnson’s book, The Captain and Mr. Shrode, from Amazon.com as well. Purchases made through links on this page help Tales Told From The Road continue to bring you a wide range of travel-related stories.)