Separation and the Sea: A Comparison between Cast Away and All Is Lost
13th of July, 4:50 pm. I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways. And I am sorry. All is lost here, except for soul and body, that is, what’s left of them, and a half day’s ration. It’s inexcusable really, I know that now. How it could have taken this long to admit that I’m not sure, but it did. I fought till the end. I’m not sure what that is worth, but know that I did. I have always hoped for more for you all. I will miss you. I’m sorry.
These are the opening words spoken by the nameless character played by Robert Redford (Our Man according to the credits) in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. The movie then flashes back eight days prior to show the events leading up to this confession. Outside of the above and a couple of failed SOS messages, there are only two words spoken in the entire film: a croaked, half-swallowed “god” and then, much louder, the chosen profanity of our era.
Most of what is to be known about Our Man must be inferred. He is old, that is clear. There is a measured care in his movements, a hobbling at the knees despite his obvious fitness; a man wise in the knowledge of his own physical strength. He is wealthy, as demonstrated by his luxurious yacht, and he is a practiced yachtsman, navigating the Indian Ocean on his own and dealing with each task in a calm, efficient manner. There is no wasted effort on his part and no dithering in the face traumatic events. The final thing we can infer from all this is that he is a divorced or separated husband and father; of how many we cannot know and the cause for which can only be guessed, but among his apology are listed a lack of truth, strength, kindness, love and righteousness. The film begins with this apology, highlighting his separation, stripping away all other elements in the film, all other signs and symbols, so that the allegorical weight of Separation becomes the defining question. This is not a film about man vs nature, this is not a film about the enduring human spirit; this is a film about a man’s quest for isolation and the events that break him from his obdurate foolishness.
Cast Away (2000) by director Robert Zemeckis is a similar film to All Is Lost. Not just because it features a wreck and a man trying to survive a desperate situation at sea, but because Cast Away, at its core, is also about separation. The film follows Chuck Noland, a FedEx supervisor whose expertise is efficiency, as he struggles to survive on an island after a plane wreck has left him a castaway. He is on the island for four years until he finally figures out a way to escape. In his absence his fiancée has married and so after spending all that time thinking of nothing but returning to his intended, he has to let her go.
This is dramatized in a number of ways, the first of which is the tale of Dick and Bettina which bookends the movie. In the beginning a FedEx van arrives at a ranch that has Dick and Bettina over the entryway. The delivery man takes a package from Bettina and we follow it to Russia where it is received by Bettina’s unfaithful husband who has shacked up with a Russian hussy. At the end of the film, Chuck is delivering a package to the same ranch, but now Dick has been cut out of the sign, leaving only Bettina and her symbol, two outstretched wings. This would be extraneous were separation and divorce not at the center of the film. Consider the title Cast Away. It isn’t the noun describing one lost at sea, castaway, it is the verb form, to cast. His name is Chuck (to throw) Noland (no land). Just as he must learn to let go of Wilson, his volleyball companion, so too must he let go of his fiancée, Kelly Frears. Robert Zemeckis, one of the great God-haters of Hollywood, is very precise with his names so it is no accident that Kelly Frears, the woman he must abandon, means “Church Brothers”.
His film on faith, Contact (1997), cowritten with atheist astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, makes a case for a supernatural origin of the cosmos, but proof is relegated to the personal experience. The lesson is that one may believe it or not, but faith is fixed in the private realm. In his adaptation of Beowulf (2007) he returns the tale to the underlying pagan myth, removing all pious references to the Christian God; going so far as to have Beowulf say that “the time of heroes is dead…the Christ god has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs”. The dragon lights churches on fire and topples steeples with a flick of his tail (a motif Zemeckis favors, Chuck Noland also strikes the cruciform pose, gaunt and bearded like a Renaissance picture of Christ). Unfortunately for Zemeckis and screenwriter Neil Gaiman, the movie fails to achieve the post-Christian paganism admired by Nietzsche, falling victim to those weak virtues of Love and Sacrifice. Nonetheless it is a worthy attempt to steal a story owned by Christ.
At this point we can note the differences in the stories. In Cast Away Chuck is ill equipped to survive, wearing a Cosby sweater and fifty extra pounds, and yet he creates fire (afterwards barking at God like some dolt Prometheus), gathers food and, most importantly, keeps time. As he says at the beginning, “We live and we die by time, and we must not commit the sin of turning our back on time.” Contrasted with this is Our Man of All Is Lost. He is excellently trained, brave, and adventurous. He is well supplied, ingenious and unflappable in the face of disasters, one after another. As a sidenote, much has been made that such a wellstocked yacht would certainly have EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and probably a VHS radio, but the lack, again, highlights his self-sufficiency and his separation. All of the mistakes he makes are curious decisions, stemming from an overall lack of concern for the threats to his life. His response to the pierced hull is minor annoyance, before the great storm he shaves- the events hardly dampen his spirit, though bodily he is soaked through and through. Our Man is chipped away, slowly weakened, whereas in Cast Away Chuck Noland is made stronger, he is chiseled into something stronger with each injury and challenge.
All Is Lost, sparse as it is in its storytelling, veers a number of times to give its allegory heft. The sun is shown once early on, in its decline beneath the horizon, an absence so stark (sunburn being a staple in such films) that it must be intentional. This absence is emphasized by the fact that throughout his plight on the raft he uses a sextant, an instrument that measures the arc of the sun to calculate latitude and longitude. Indirectly he is using the sun, but he spends his day hiding from it and the movie progresses into darkness. The sun does reappear, filtered through the ocean as we look upward, and with the moon it forms a contrasting object next to the dark raft. The shape of the eye is invoked visually, reminding us that though Our Man, the old man, does not heed the sun, that there is a world that is attentive to the heavens.
A further element is used to enlighten the story. When he enters the raft, having lost his yacht, near the point in which he writes “all is lost”, when death is the likely outcome, the camera is submerged and the audience is shown the microscopic lifeforms beneath him, how they gambol and jibe. This verdancy potentially undermines his claim that all is lost, for what loss is it to lose the whole world and yet gain one’s soul? A following school of fish, matched in shape to the raft, foreshadow his plight when they are assaulted by predators. Slowly they are replaced by the menacing presence of sharks. And finally when he has set flame to his raft and fallen into the ocean, on one side there is the light of the moon, on the other is his burning raft. At the moment of resignation a boat spears through the light of the moon, as if sent by the light, and Our Man swims toward his ring of fire to be saved. The movie concludes with a hand reaching down from above and grasping the outstretched hand of Our Man.
Ultimately these two films, Cast Away and All Is Lost, are saying opposite things. Cast Away builds a man up until he is near godlike, mastering the wind, conquering the waves and bequeathing personhood on lifeless objects, but All Is Lost breaks a man down until he has nothing, until he ceases to cling to the world. His life has failed him, his possessions, his reliance on commerce (failing to be rescued by crossing the shipping lanes), the strength in himself has failed and he repents. In the beginning he slumbers and the sea must break through to wake him. His life begins when a shipping container (a relic of the destructive nature of greed and graceless capitalism) pierces the side of his boat. He inspects the damage and sees shoes floating atop the water. He leaves this behind as he has left all things behind, but it is a striking image, these floating shoes, for who walks on water?