It's not quite on the order of two movies being released about, say, volcanoes (Dante's Peak/Volcano), an asteroid hitting the planet (Armageddon/Deep Impact), or Steve Prefontaine (Without Limits/Prefontaine) within a short stretch of time…man, I still can't get over this, all these years later. It was enough of a longshot that even one movie got made about a notable but semi-obscure and semi-forgotten track star, but TWO of them within two years? How?
Uh, sorry, got off track. Anyway, while All Is Lost and Gravity have some marked difference, it's kind of remarkable that we got two such similar pictures released more or less simultaneously. Both are movies feature exactly one character* who is struggling to survive against nature with only his/her wits and limited technological backup to sustain them. Also, in both cases, that one character is played by a Hollywood superstar who's so beloved by audiences that our inherent affection for this star makes us intrinsically root for him/her in any circumstance, no matter the character.
* okay, so Gravity kind of cheats since Bullock has Clooney, another astronaut and the mission control voice (Ed Harris! Great touch!) for the first 15 minutes, plus her brief hallucination later on in the film. But c'mon, it's virtually all her. I guess you could also say that All Is Lost has both Redford and the arm that grabs onto him at the end, though if you did say that, you're officially the World's Biggest Nitpicker.
It could be this small detail that made me slightly prefer All Is Lost to Gravity, even though both are incredible movies that rank amongst the year's very best. The life-or-death situation was all it took for me to get behind the two characters, since being stranded in the middle of the ocean or stranded in outer space obviously invites sympathy. Those are "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy" scenarios. What I liked about AIL is that the film focuses only the scenario itself. Redford's character isn't even given a name (he's just "Our Man" in the credits) and I think he actually utters maybe two words throughout the entire movie. He has a voiceover at the very beginning of the picture reciting his 'all is lost' letter to his children, hinting at some family drama, but it's oblique enough that it doesn't really matter.
And, it doesn't matter. All we care about Redford's character is that he's stuck in this mess. He's "Our Man" so we're in his corner. As I cited earlier, we as a movie audience are subconsciously going to always be rooting for Robert Redford anyway, so AIL just abandons all pretense of character and gives us, essentially, 'Robert Redford is in a boating accident in the middle of the ocean.' Hell, Redford seems like an outdoorsy guy to me, he's probably been on a boat or two in his life. If you told me that he was an experienced yachter and the movie was based on an actual event in his life, I'd buy it.
In Gravity, however, we learn a bit about Bullock's character's backstory, including a deceased daughter. Her journey back to Earth therefore kind of becomes a metaphor for her overcoming her past traumas, and by that point, it felt like piling on. It seemed like a bad actor's workshop instruction. "Okay Sandra, in this scene, your motivation is that getting back to Earth will allow you to symbolically put your daughter's death behind you." Um, no, when you're stranded in friggin' outer space, GETTING THE FUCK BACK TO EARTH should be the only motivation necessary. We're already rooting for Sandra Bullock from step one. We're especially rooting for her when she's stranded in outer space with seemingly no possible hope of salvation, an even more dire situation than Redford's character (at least 'Our Man' had the possibility, if a remote one, of being saved by another off-course boat sailing near him; there sure as hell wasn't any other passing spaceship around to bail out Dr. Ryan Stone).
Another reason why I slightly preferred AIL to Gravity, and I can't help resisting the bad pun here, is that All Is Lost was a bit more down to earth. In any "one person stranded in a life-or-death situation" type of plot, you're inevitably going to think about what you would do if you were caught in a similar scenario. Well, right off the bat, there is no possible way I'd ever find myself in Dr. Stone's situation. Nobody on the entire planet will even have the remote chance of being in that situation aside from the few hundred of us earthlings who are trained astronauts. Now, admittedly, there is also a zero percent chance I'd ever find myself on a solo boat trip across the Pacific Ocean, but I dunno, there's at least a chance I'll be on a boat sometime in my life, an accident would occur, and I'd find myself stranded in a body of water. Also, most people have at least a passing knowledge of boats so it's easier to be impressed by Redford's ingenuity. With Gravity, operating space machinery is just so absolutely foreign to us that it makes Bullock's escapes seem less impressive.
Now that I've outlined my only two issues with Gravity, let me state again that it's an incredible movie and fully deserving of the umpteen technical Oscars it's going to win on Sunday. Alfonso Cuaron is also the favourite for Best Director and he'd be a very worthy winner with a great track record (though I would also be more than okay with Steve McQueen winning). Cuaron basically had to pioneer new ways of filming in order to make this movie, which puts his work even a hair ahead of AIL director J.C. Chandor, who also did an incredible job with what must've been a very difficult film to fully conceive and then actually make. My only issue is that while Gravity was a masterpiece of filmmaking, I'm not sure why All Is Lost isn't right there alongside it in basically every tech category. AIL somehow only received one stinking Oscar nomination for sound editing --- I would've had it in the running for Picture, Director, Actor, Editing, Cinematography, both sound categories and the score, by god, the score. The music has to be a character itself what with the lack of dialogue, so I can't figure out how Alex "Guy from Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros" Ebert didn't get a nomination.
So yeah, there's why All Is Lost will appear exactly one spot ahead of Gravity on my upcoming Markademy Awards 'best of the year' rankings. But just where on my list will each movie fall? Stay tuned!