Two films frequently cited together on the best films lists for 2013 were Gravity and All is Lost. As many reviewers noted, the films featured isolated individuals up against the cold, impersonal forces of the universe — the dark void of outer space for Sandra Bullock in Gravity and the dark depths of the Indian Ocean for Robert Redford in All is Lost. Less noted was a crucial difference between the two films: Sandra Bullock survives and Robert Redford dies. Intrinsically connected to these outcomes is another difference: Gravity is the story of a woman; All is Lost is the story of a man. Through examining this difference we can learn how contemporary film achieves its effects through mobilizing unconscious mythic and archetypal images, especially those concerning gender.

In both films the main character is faced with the ultimate existential crisis: imminent death. In both films the characters are resourceful and draw on considerable inner resources in their struggle to survive. In both films the essence of the struggle lies in the characters’ efforts to connect with other human beings. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock uses her inner connections to two objects to keep herself from giving up. These objects — her long-deceased daughter and her recently deceased co-pilot, George Clooney — are dead in reality but alive in her psyche. In All is Lost Robert Redford struggles to get the attention of the only human world within sight, the passing container ships. Bullock’s rich inner dialogues keep her courage up as she struggles to reach earth. Redford, by contrast, remains an unnoticed speck and perishes at sea.

All Is Lost film poster © Lionsgate (United States) FilmNation Entertainment (International) | Wikimedia Commons
All is Lost film poster © Lionsgate (United States) FilmNation Entertainment (International) | Wikimedia Commons

The Bullock character mobilizes a set of classic mythic images concerning women, namely their intrinsically object-related character, which relates to their role as mothers. The Bullock character is never really alone, but is always with another; this is her strength and this is why she comes to earth in a birth image, emerging (even evolving) out of the sea. The Redford character mobilizes an equally powerful myth concerning maleness: he is not only alone in a shipwrecked vessel, he has actually chosen to be alone by sailing the Indian Ocean with technical instruments but with no human companions. While Gravity is suffused with Bullock’s interior monologue, there are no words in All is Lost, except the poignant letter that Redford puts in a bottle, expressing the monumentality of his struggle to survive and what seems to be a lost or fractured marriage in the past. We learn everything about Bullock’s relations because she is her relationships; we learn almost nothing about Redford because he is so desperately alone.

While these images of man and woman, of masculinity and femininity, are ancient, they take a special form today, which can be grasped historically. They are the product of seventies’ feminism, and especially with its struggle with psychoanalysis — the core intellectual and in many ways spiritual struggle of that movement. Behind the Bullock woman lie thinkers like Nancy Chodorow, Carol Gilligan and Dorothy Dinnerstein, who described women as essentially object-related and men as essentially isolated and alone. Contemporary philosophers like Judith Butler have struggled to escape the gender essentialism perpetuated by seventies’ feminists, but ultimately fail because they retain the ideological attack on the “lone horseman,” the “Cartesian ego,” the “pathos of heterosexuality” and the like.

Captain Phillips film poster © Columbia Pictures |
Captain Phillips film poster © Columbia Pictures |

I will not try to argue here for the superiority of my own view that Freud’s emphasis on bisexuality, namely the way that both sexes go back and forth between male and female objects and the way in which every sexual relation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, needs to be understood as consisting of four people, not two. But I think I can point out why All is Lost is the better of the two movies by bringing a third, also similar, movie into the discussion, namely Captain Phillips.

In Captain Phillips we again see an individual (Tom Hanks) struggling against fatally overwhelming odds, but in this case the problem is human and social, namely Somali piracy. Captain Phillips demonstrates a powerful reality of the modern world, namely the way in which literally billions of dollars in military — naval — power can be used to save a single individual. As an American who travels a lot, I am very well aware of what it means to have American power at my back. However, simplistic patriotism is undone by one unforgettable scene in the movie when the Hanks character suggests to the pirate leader (peerlessly played by Barkhad Abdi) that there may be better ways to make money than piracy, and Abdi replies “No. Maybe in America, but not here.” Similarly in All is Lost, we get a sense that what Redford finally is up against are the huge, Maersk container ships, which glide past with only a handful of humans on board, and which exemplify Marx’s characterization of the fetishism of commodities. By contrast, Gravity, remains the most mythic of the three, the least accessible to a critical reading or an historical analysis and this may reflect its deeper roots in the still unresolved upheavals of the nineteen seventies.