The Economic Metaphors of ‘All is Lost’

Now that the hub-bub of the Oscars is over, it’s an appropriate time to examine the metaphor-laden film, All is Lost. It was nominated for an Academy Award in sound editing (but ultimately taken by Gravity), but received little attention during Oscar season. I believe the economic metaphors were recognized by the elites, and they weren’t very interested in promoting All is Lost any more than necessary.

I must provide a spoiler alert, although the film is one of those “have-to-see-it” experiences. Having read summaries before seeing All is Lost, I held some trepidation about the film, wondering if a single cast member with a dialogue-less script (there is a short voice-over at the beginning) could really pull it off.

It works. As I said, you have to see it for yourself to believe such a sparse premise can keep your attention.

However, I do not plan to undertake a scene-by-scene analysis here. The broader strokes are discussed. I’ll leave it to the viewer to fill in the gaps. And forgive me if some of the descriptions show my lack of understanding the nomenclature. Having hailed from the Midwest doesn’t lend itself to a very full education of maritime knowledge.

The economic overtures are already at a start when we learn All is Lost was written and directed by J.C. Chandor, who garnered an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay for Margin Call, an excellent film on Wall Street’s role in the Global Financial Crisis.

The film opens with a skipper (Robert Redford) sailing solo through the Sumatra Strait (Strait of Malacca) on a 39-foot Cal Yacht, a fiberglass-hull yacht mass produced from the Sixties through the Eighties. It is not a finely crafted, custom-made vessel lovingly assembled by hand.

On the face of it, we have to assume the solo sailing effort is part of a retiree’s bucket list. Sailing where, for what distance, is left to the imagination. It matters little, for what is about to unfold negates the necessity of explaining. Yet, we have to question the wisdom of undertaking such a voyage – no matter how short – once the gaps in the skipper’s knowledge are revealed.

The Sumatra Strait connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean by way of the South China Sea. Other locations were also used for filming, including the Caribbean, but All is Lost opens with a screen graphic that places the waters as being the Sumatra Strait. Locating the scene is important, not only for our sense of curiosity but that this strait represents one of the most critical shipping lanes into and out of China.

The film opens showing the yacht aground on a floating shipping container (one imagines the shipping container must have went overboard during a storm, although in reality I cannot fathom this happening very often but then again, what do I know about oceanic shipping?). A corner of the container has punctured the hull. This occurred while the skipper was taking a nap below deck. Water is slowly sloshing through the hull, and gear is bumping around cabinets, which wakes the skipper. Surprisingly, we find that the yacht had been under sail at the time of the unmanned collision. Why was the skipper asleep?

Redford’s character seems to represent the American worker, who was “under full sail” when the American economy was fully functioning. Becoming complacent about the economic success around him, the American worker decided to take a nap without exercising caution (lowering the sails). He runs aground on the manufacturing capacity of China (the shipping container, marked in Chinese characters).

The skipper manages to pry the hull off the shipping container, but in the act of doing so one of the container’s doors opens. He swings the yacht around to retrieve his sea anchor (a part of separating the yacht from the container), but this allows him to see what was inside: Out floats hundreds of tennis shoes, expensive at retail, but an incredibly cheap product to make in China. The shoes symbolize the sizable profit margins that can be had by corporations offshoring jobs.

The skipper doesn’t have a choice: he must repair the hole in the hull if he has any hope of reaching harbor. While he does have a fiberglass repair kit on board, it isn’t large enough to properly lay up enough fiberglass cloth to withhold the rigors of sailing at sea. We see a shot of the final repair; it doesn’t look promising. It may well be that not only is the repair kit lacking enough material, so are the skipper’s skills at rendering the repair.

The American worker recognizes the severity and significance of the damage, but he simply doesn’t have the proper tools or skills to bring his vessel safely back to harbor for a more thorough repair.

The lack of skills is highlighted elsewhere.

The onboard electronics were severely damaged as a result of the accident. The laptop looks as soggy as bread dropped in water. The skipper is on his own, reduced to surviving by his knowledge and instinct. But the skipper lacks the knowledge – or possessed the knowledge at one time but since the computer has overtaken so many of the duties for him, he no longer retains the knowledge. The skipper is forced to pull out a book on navigation, with instructions on how to use the old-fashion sextant (analog computer) and night-time sky.

There is something disconcerting about seeing the skipper pull out this book during a crisis. Doesn’t he know this? Is this a matter of too little, too late?

In a parallel manner, the American worker has forgotten the basics as well, once known or, as with younger workers, probably never learned. The American worker no longer has to think, just do as he is instructed. Few bother to check the veracity of the data spewed forth from the spreadsheet; even fewer care. Awards are not in place for critical thinking. If the internal rate of return hits the magic number, then press the “go” button, no matter the real-world environment or potential for negative externalities.

It is simply easier to keep one’s head down and do whatever is minimally necessary to keep the paychecks coming in. Not only is initiative no longer awarded, it often leads one out the door. Managers do not tolerate well the knowledgeable underling who threatens his or her job.

The remainder of the film records a slow slide into oblivion, oscillating between bad choices made by the skipper (e.g., switching to a storm jib during a storm, or removing the boards on the hatch during a storm, etc.) and the threats completely out of his control, such as the storms themselves. Little by little, the yacht is reduced to a floating hulk. The skipper is eventually forced to abandoned the yacht for an emergency raft, before the yacht finally sinks below the waterline.

Likewise, the American worker experienced a similar slide into oblivion, wrought by poor choices and larger macro events seemingly out of his control.

The skipper comes close to being rescued, not once but twice by mammoth cargo ships navigating their way through the strait. In neither instance, however, does the crew on these ships spot our distressed sailor. The sense of impending doom rises in the viewer’s throat.

The cargo ships represent our globalized economy, with an endless stream of cheap goods shoved out of China and arriving in developed economies everywhere. The very size of the ships is staggering and when one attempts to calculate just how many goods are loaded on a single ship, it is overwhelming. To completely stagger our senses, how many of these ships leave China and Southeast Asia every day?

The captains of industry are metaphorically at the helm of these ships, too busy with shipping their cheap goods into retail stores to be bothered by some American worker struggling to stay afloat. They are so taken by the size of their operations that they cannot comprehend the disconnect between the tidal wave of goods being imported into America, and how the American worker will continue to pay for them once their incomes are diminished to subsistence levels.

In the end, the skipper becomes so desperate that when he sees a faint, distant light at night, he sets his raft on fire, hoping to attract attention. The material of the raft, however, is highly flammable and ignites into a conflagration in no time. We sense that by this point, the skipper doesn’t seem to care anymore; he has resigned himself to death.

With the last glimpse of the light we see, it doesn’t appear to move.

The skipper allows himself to sink, giving up the struggle.

At the very end, when all seems lost, he sees the shadow of a vessel overhead. He frantically swims up to the waterline.

An arm reaches in, and grabs him. He is saved.

A storybook ending, after all, but is it realistic? Will some unknown rescuer reach in at the last minute and save the American worker?

And who was it that undertook the rescue in the film?

We never see.

Who could it be?

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One Response to “The Economic Metaphors of ‘All is Lost’”

  1. Robert A. Vella Says:

    Fascinating, I’ll have to see it.

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