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Peril at sea – All is lost vs Captain Phillips

August 17, 2014

In the past week, I’ve watched two ‘peril at sea’ movies on DVD – the amazing Captain Phillips (a true story of the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years) and Robert Redford’s one-man-catastrophe, All is lost, the story of a man whose boat hits a shipping container and gradually sinks.

The fact that I’m ‘a bit boaty’ probably plays a large part in my enjoyment of the first, and frustration of the latter. I have no knowledge of cargo ships, Somalian pirates (other than what I’ve seen on the Ten o’clock news), or the US Navy, but everything I saw in that film seemed believable. The sense of claustrophobia that built up in the lifeboat as the pirates’ water ran out and their situation got more and more desperate was totally believable – I got thirsty, and you could have heard a pin drop.

Contrast this to the ridiculous behaviour of the main character (‘our man’) in All is lost, who swears just once in the entire film, and didn’t even attempt to fix the electric systems on his boat (which would have solved all his problems in an instant), and the reason as to why one film experience was interesting and insightful, and the other was two hours of yelling at the screen, is clear. All is lost, whilst beautiful to look at (I believe it was commended for its cinematography – but then so was Tree of Life), had nothing to hold the viewer’s interest. The inciting incident happened right at the beginning, but after Redford had repaired the hole, it seemed the danger was over. Then a crack of thunder rumbled in the distance, and seconds later his boat was pitch-poling through 40-foot high waves – and we had the kettle on.

Captain Phillips employs a similar ‘eek, here comes trouble’ moment, when the pirates first appear on the sonar scan, and then as they creep ominously closer, before being scared off back into the shadows. However, in contrast to the ‘first a hole, now a storm’ plot development of All is lost, Captain Phillips cranks up the tension amongst the characters, who know the danger hasn’t passed, and the pirates will be back.

Plus, there’s no back story. Ok, so Captain Phillips’ back story consists of a highly expositional car ride with the Captain expressing his worries about his under-achieving teenaged son, and a bunch of Somalian guys looking menacing and expressing their need for money. But at least the story-writers gave us something. We knew from the start that Tom Hanks was a good guy, and the pirates were in desperate circumstances. We could empathise, and see what each had at stake.

All is lost opens with our man’s boat hitting a container, and a great big hole opening up in his boat. He looks a bit puzzled, ties a couple of knots, and then sets about a highly improbable epoxy repair to the hull. We have no idea who he is, where he is, what he’s doing there, or why. His ‘message in a bottle’, which we learn he writes eight days later when ‘all is lost’, is written to the only audience likely to ever read it – a faceless ocean.

Ben lost patience almost immediately, when the deep-sea yachtsman seemed to express very little interest in salvaging the important parts of his boat, and was more intent on having a shave and doing a bit of tidying up than repairing the damage or trying to start the engine. I was confident we would soon find out why the character was so lackadaisical. Maybe he’s suicidal. Maybe ‘all is already lost’ I suggested – his wife’s left him, he’s lost his job, all he has left is his boat which he’s sailing to a new life – or maybe his own death. Maybe he wants to get wrecked.

But no, he’s just a bit useless. He bumps his head and flaps some maps about. He eats beans out of a can. He fills up a container with water only to leave the breather cap open so it gets contaminated by seawater (the one and only time he gets a bit cross).

Contrast this to Captain Phillips and his crew, who between them fight off the pirates the first time, then reason, negotiate, and failing that, hurt their adversaries (that glass in the foot looked very painful), in an effort to survive. When ‘our man’ tells us in his suicide note (for that is what it is) “I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried,” he earned not sympathy and pity from the audience, but a snort of derision. I know who I would rather share a boat with.

It’s a shame, because Robert Redford acts, for the most part, really well, and it could have been a great story – if it actually had one. Without giving away the ending, it was pure Hollywood, over-dramatisation, leaving a gaping emotional hole far bigger than the rather incidental damage to the side of the boat. Captain Phillips’ ending, by contrast, had me in floods of tears, cursing Tom Hanks’ name for ruining my mascara.

There is a scene in All is lost in which Redford nearly gets mown down by a cargo ship storming past his life raft. He yells a bit, lets off a flare, and then sulks when it doesn’t see him. I can’t help but hope it was Captain Phillips’ boat, being altogether too busy telling a good story to notice this little guy yelling on his piece of floating plastic. Now that would have made a good film.

From → Blog, Film

  1. I like the contrast of both movies here. Captain Phillips was a fantastic movie & All is lost had the potential to be a great movie.

  2. OMG, love the idea of Captain Phillips’ boat running down Redford. Best idea ever!!

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