Whenever you make a movie that showcases the acting of just one superstar, you can be sure it’ll be set on an island or at sea. It’s mostly been that way, going back to the 1950s when Spencer Tracy showed he could hold an entire feature on his own with “Old Man and the Sea.” By 2000, it was Tom Hanks who was shaping up to be the next Spencer Tracy after holding most of “Cast Away” on his own from a deserted island. Thirteen years later, Robert Redford now continues the trend while reminding that acting hiatuses can sometimes give much more power to your film comebacks.
Why do we mostly see movies about the sea when it comes to solo acting showcases? It’s not entirely that way if you see upcoming “Tracks” with Mia Wasikowska about the solo trek of Robyn Davidson across the Aussie outback. But the sea has much more mystery than the desert does. That includes plenty of unknowns even our most learned marine biologists don’t know yet. We know our oceans are filled with things that are much more powerful than one person can logically take on, and that’s still irresistible to writers creating something original.
When the above philosophy started with Herman Melville over 150 years ago via “Moby Dick”, the ocean became a hotbed for literary metaphors we saw carry over into the earliest days of film. There were far more seafaring adventure movies in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, though, then there has been in the last decade. It’s no secret the world of pirates seems to be the only thing that’s kept movies about the sea from disappearing completely from the big screen. On top of that, they’ve had to be a little tongue in cheek due to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise.
Regardless, with “All is Lost” and “Captain Phillips” out around the same time (plus “Life of Pi” last year), it’s clear the movies are getting serious again about the potentials of the sea drama. New threats have emerged in our oceans that add more layers to what could happen out there. None of this even comes close to the deadpan seriousness of dealing with sharks that can supposedly get sucked out of the ocean and into a tornado.
What’s notable here is that “All is Lost” and “Captain Phillips” use as much serious-minded Melvillian allegory as “Moby Dick” did. Hanks’s interpretation of Captain Richard Phillips shows the structure of overcoming something nearly as insurmountable as a storm or harpooning a giant whale. The Somali pirates also have as much ambiguity as the storm and the whale in being necessary evils that are always out there.
The Redford movie takes us right back to Ernest Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea” where one 70-something man taking on nature is the ultimate machismo and rite of passage. It was the perfect vehicle for Redford and one that probably couldn’t have been done in the 1970s when sea movies were stagnant.
Both “Phillips” and “All is Lost” now pave the way for more sea movies with a serious point. Plenty of things are still left to say about the sea in all their metaphorical glory, including dealing with oil spills, larger hurricanes, sea levels rising, plus dying sea life. It’s almost as scary out there now as anything an urban or city drama can drum up today.
And because there’s still new sea life being discovered, don’t be surprised to see something large and threatening going after one of our ships and depicted with a very straight face.