In counterpoint to "Gravity," about an astronaut's struggle to survive in space, J.C. Chandor's drama revolves around a lone sailor's struggle to survive at sea.
The challenge begins as a 39-foot yacht is struck by a metal shipping container filled with Chinese-made children's shoes. The Virginia Jean's grizzled owner (Robert Redford) awakens, inundated by seawater pouring into the cabin. In the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean with his navigation equipment deactivated and his radio in need of repair, he is barely able to patch up the damaged hull before he's battered by the wind and rain from a violent storm, which capsizes the boat in open water, 1,700 miles from the Sumatra Straits. Perilously adrift in a life raft, using only a sextant and nautical maps to chart his progress, the resourceful mariner must improvise. His strategy is to rely on ocean currents to carry him into a shipping lane -- in hope of hailing a passing vessel. But soon sharks are circling, his water supply is exhausted and he's fighting for his life.
Although there is almost no dialogue, charismatic Redford's compelling, subtly edgy, complex performance is intelligent and intensely focused, combining insight with uncertainty and fear, evoking memories of his earlier, often underestimated, work in the equally rugged "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972). Now in his mid-70s, Redford reportedly performed the majority of his own stunts, and an inevitable Best Actor Oscar nomination is well deserved.
Writer/director Chandor, who garnered a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for his first film, "Margin Call," boldly relies on minimalist, Hemingway-esque realism and naturalistic sounds to sustain seafaring suspense in what might be interpreted as an environmental, perhaps metaphysical, allegory. There are no tricks or gimmicks, no flashbacks with secondary characters to explain the nameless man's family situation. It's all about ingenuity and dogged perseverance -- superbly chronicled by cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini and scored by Alex Ebert.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "All Is Lost" is an awesome 8, an extraordinary adventure on an unforgiving sea.