Battling Our Debris: The Real Struggles of ‘Gravity,’ ‘Captain Phillips’ and ‘All is Lost’

By  · Published on November 19th, 2013

Captivity/survivor narratives are hardly unfamiliar to our movie screens, and such films tend to come in bunches. Three years ago, for instance, both Buried and 127 Hours boasted solo or near-solo performances from two rising Hollywood stars who spent the duration of their films as the solitary face we see.

But last month brought a prominent and concentrated group of such films, all met with overwhelmingly good reviews, promising major performances from their leading survivor types, and coasting on significant awards buzz. While each film explores near misses, false moments of possible redemption, the necessary instance of despair, and ultimately an incredible optimism in the possibility for human beings to survive a conflagration of elements that work overwhelmingly against them, each of these films go about this differently.

Yet the major factor connecting J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is that they all stage humans’ fraught relationship to nature through the problems and failures of human commerce and its attendant production of waste. Their respective fights with or on the landscape of nature, in other words, are inaugurated by the failure of humans to wield their own devices.

Debris, The Enemy

The captivity/survivor trope offers disparate possibilities for each of these filmmakers. For Cuarón, it’s the opportunity to create an immersive technological spectacle through cinema. In true blockbuster fashion, he uses the spectacular capacities of technology to portray the utter destruction of technology. For Greengrass, Captain Phillips, like his Bloody Sunday and United 93, offers a productively narrow chamber through which he can examine political and ideological conflicts between people – portrayals of violence that result from implicit prior acts of violence and exploitation existing largely outside of the film. For Chandor, All is Lost presents an about-face from his feature debut Margin Call: clever dialogue, an ensemble cast, and the sleek surface-glamor of wall street is replaced by a study in no dialogue, a single character’s plight, and the gradual dissolution of both his boat and his body.

Gravity and All is Lost open in almost the exact same way, with characters involved in quotidian operations of a “ship” suddenly interrupted by strange debris that forces a catastrophic break in otherwise routine activities. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan and George Clooney’s Matt float around in space performing telescope repair – their characters interchangeably overwhelmed, enchanted, and bored by the compass-defying reaches of orbital space travel – until the debris from a destroyed Russian satellite jump-starts Bullock’s space-station-hopping journey toward earth.

All is Lost, a stark and beautiful piece of purely cinematic minimalism and restraint (Chandor, Robert Redford, and composer Alex Ebert seem to be working in perfect sync towards this end) goes so far as to defer Gravity’s character-building in favor of starting off (after a brief, foreshadowing voice-over) with the problem introduced in the same moment as the character who endures it: Redford’s sailboat is breached by the corner of a shipping container. Here again we see man-made debris – litter or breakage, so to speak, meant to disappear unnoticed into places that humans do not naturally go. This material debris is reconfigured as a malevolent blunt object of destruction if it weren’t for the fact that it’s impossible for such materials to possess intentions of any kind. The effect is incredibly cold.

The protagonists of Gravity and All is Lost don’t begin their crisis because of inclement weather or a stray meteor or sunflare – their lives are threatened by something that, in theory, is completely superfluous and should be entirely avoidable.

Captain Phillips is a horse of a different stripe in this regard. Instead of one piece of human material debris interrupting otherwise routine demonstrations of engineering, technology, and industry in the face of conditions that humans do not naturally reside, Greengrass’s depiction of a conflict between what is made by humans and what is made by nature is more systemic and complex. As I wrote in October, Captain Phillips to great effect uses the vast reaches of the sea to investigate how ideologies are constructed and reinforced. The presence of the Somali pirates is a result of systemic inequalities created through global flows of capital – Somali fishermen are removed from their own materials for trade and commerce by the forces of globalization. The risky yet feeble attempt by Somali pirates to intervene in this process is met in full force by the custodians of global dominance, here realized through American military powers. When Phillips (Tom Hanks) moves the Maersk Alabama through the horn of Africa, he calculates the risk he must take (he is implicitly instructed to do so by unnamed superiors) in cutting through pirate territory.

Phillips’s decision, then, is staged as a calculated investment in an uncertain economy (anchored by productive if forced parallels made in the film’s exposition-centric opening minutes). It is the pirates themselves (or anyone drained of their natural resources by the unequal flows of globalization) that constitutes the breakage. The threat emerges from the fact that there is no longer any “nature” to conquer; the fight is over what has already been definitively conquered. The situation that individuals are put in on both sides (Phillips and his crew, the pirates) points to the bad decisions made by others (executive superiors, warlords) at some point in time that ultimately places functionaries like Phillips and his crew or struggling dependents like Muse and his crew at risk.

In a coincidental crossover worthy of Marvel, the shipping container that hits Redford’s boat in All is Lost directly evokes Captain Phillips, and one of the shipping boats that Redford attempts to alert carries a legion of containers labeled “Maersk.” It’s as if Hanks’ film could have had another chapter had he picked up a fuzzy transmission from another sailor in trouble.

The timing is quite remarkable, and the unintentional yet specific connection between these films makes even the vast and uninhabitable blue parts of our map seem incredibly small by the fact that they are served by only the privileged few industries who have monopolized and effectively nationalized them.

Cast Away Into Silence

But there’s another connection here, too. Both Captain Phillips and All is Lost evoke Hanks’ role in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, perhaps the most widely seen captivity/survivor narrative. Unlike his Hankness in Cast Away, Hanks never loses contact with humans in Captain Phillips – his captivity doesn’t actually begin until he’s forced into a small emergency boat as a solo hostage.

But in All is Lost, Redford stages a more restrained (less Zemeckis-y) version of the Cast Away trope. Besides the narration of a cryptic letter he writes later in the film, the ephemeral buzz of a radio, and the film’s final shot, Redford’s “Our Man” never has human contact, and spends the entire film never uttering more than perhaps a dozen words. There is no Wilson here to provide temporary solace and comic relief. There is only the set of tasks that lie ahead, which Redford executes with an incredible stoicism that’s layered with a silent monologue of all the things he might be thinking as he enters any given moment. While we learn none of them concretely, Redford’s character is rich with possibilities in terms of what may have brought him to that moment in the first place. What, I wondered throughout, was he attempting to escape?

Bullock’s similar performance in Gravity (whose backstory, by contrast, is never in question) cements her worthy status as a venerable movie star and captivating everywoman, but I can’t help but wonder what more subtle opportunities (i.e., not 3D tears) could have existed for her had Gravity trusted her solitude as much as All is Lost trusts Redford’s.

Final Thoughts

Gravity, All is Lost, and Captain Phillips are vastly different in terms of scale, aesthetics, theme, and scope, but they each possess remarkably similar tensions at their core – namely the fear that the world as we once knew it is now at an inevitable and coldly impersonal war with itself, with human beings as the casualties, the true “breakage” and debris. These films present a world in which nature and the residues of industry co-exist, but humans themselves live harmoniously with neither. A simple collision between two pieces of man-made materials at sea or in space is meaningless; but if a human being is in the mix, the situation becomes a battle with both the unrelenting forces of nature and the inadequate means by which human beings attempt to master it.

All of these movies end on some scale of “hope” with relative degrees of catharsis. But it’s worth noting that the relief comes because each of these protagonists finally left the place they each implicitly were never really “meant” to be, whether that be the impossibility of space, a risky route of trade, or the treachery of the sea. They have “survived,” yes, but the days of conquering are long gone.