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Surviving the latest trend in American cinema

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Who is this man? The protagonist in “All is Lost” is also its sole character — an older (but astoundingly fit) stranded sailor portrayed by 77-year-old Robert Redford. He’s unnamed, and does not speak except for right at the beginning of the film when he’s reciting a letter to persons unknown. The letter is couched as an apology, but for what sin we do not know. “I will miss you,” he says by way of farewell. He wears a wedding ring on his left hand, but there’s no telling to whom he’s directing this missive.

The story begins eight days earlier, when the man wakes to find that a wayward ship container has pierced a large hole in the side of his yacht. Alone and out at sea, the man goes through a series of tasks in order of importance: 1. Check to see if the electricity is working (it’s not); 2. Assemble the tools necessary to plug and repair the hole; 3. Sustain himself with a can of beans; and so on. It’s a slow, painstaking process, and this man doesn’t even have a volleyball to talk to at night, like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away.” One by one, his resources fall away. A cargo ship passes close by, but no one sees him as he signals in vain.

The director is J.C. Chandor, whose debut feature “Margin Call” was a story about investment bankers when the global economy took a nosedive toward unmitigated disaster in 2007-8. Now showing in Japan, “All is Lost” is his second feature and, at first glance, the two may as well be set on different planets. But there’s one outstanding commonality: Both reveal an inordinate fascination with human beings trying their darnedest to survive and deploying every resource at their disposal, not least their own store of knowledge, experience and willpower.

Right now there is a trend toward survival films, probably because in this perpetually plugged-in age, experiencing anything new without simulation or data is fast becoming an impossibility. “All is Lost” deprives its central character of everything, and the first thing to go is his laptop. With no available methods of communication, and only a very rough idea of where he is, the man abandons his yacht and takes to a life raft with a pencil, a couple of maps and a sextant. We’ve never seen Redford take such a beating — drenched in sea water, pummelled by rain storms and foiled at every desperate attempt to circumvent disaster.

Other recent movies to pitch man (or sometimes woman) against the elements include “The Grey,” “Gravity,” “Kon-Tiki,” “Life of Pi” and, to some extent, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

“There is a definite market for survival films,” says Michiharu Tanoue, a trend analyst with a major advertising agency. “This market caters more to men than women, especially older men, though the factor of age is not a prerequisite. Men of all ages who aren’t into Internet games or are themselves weekend rock climbers or adventurers — they’re the ones comprising this market.

“There are also more than a few men, over 40 and single, who cite survival films as a way to impress women. You’d be surprised at how many older couples went to see ‘Life of Pi,’ though that one’s far from your usual run of date movies.”

Koichi Mizuki, who has worked as a set designer for NHK’s historical dramas, says there’s something very rewarding about the survival-film experience.

“Ultimately, survival stories aren’t about good or bad,” says Mizuki. “There are no superheroes, just people trying to stay alive and make it back home. The simplicity of that is very appealing, especially to the Japanese salarymen who have to live such a controlled life, and someone like me who has to deal with a lot of history, back stories and period detail. All that information gets to be so overwhelming.”

Mizuki’s personal favorite is “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle’s 2010 work based on the real-life experience of mountaineer and rock climber Aron Ralston, who was trapped in a Utah slot canyon for over five days before severing his arm with a small multi-tool knife to free himself.

“Would I have the courage to do that? It’s a question I often ask myself,” says Mizuki. “On the other hand, that sort of pondering is what makes survival films so important to me.”

Jake Adelstein, author of “Tokyo Vice” and a JT columnist, cites the current state of the global economy as one of the reasons why survival movies are so appealing right now.

“Just looking at the U.S. economy, there’s a huge gap between the rich and poor, and this gap is widening all the time,” he says. “Which is why men tend to identify with survival films. They could lose their jobs, be unable to support their families. The sheer unpredictability of the future, the feeling that disaster could hit at any moment —these are primal fears that survival films tap into.”

The next survival extravaganza to hit our shores will be “Noah,” slated for release in June. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, “Noah” is a biblical saga on a grand, A-list-star-studded scale (featuring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson), and by all accounts, it is a survival-film heavyweight in both content and execution. Echoing the film’s environmental message, Aronofsky forbade anything plastic or non-recyclable on set, and as a result early-morning shoots were frequently conducted with zero bottled water available. At one point Emma Watson conked out from dehydration and asked Aronofsky for a break. He refused, saying she should save her suffering for the scene they were shooting.

“There’s a certain masochism at work in survival films,” says Tanoue. “And I think that in the digital age, we all have a secret hankering to experience a little pain and agony. It’s one way of feeling alive.”

“All is Lost” is now showing.