ALL IS LOST Trailer: The Elemental Rhythm of Movie Marketing

Reviews for All Is Lost highlight the film’s paucity of dialogue. In this film about a lone American sailor struggling to survive in the vastness of the Indian ocean after his boat’s hull is punctured by an errant shipping container, there is simply no one for him to talk to. The film is winning critical plaudits for Robert Redford‘s non-verbal performance and the editing, cinematography and directing that conveys all the excitement, terror, isolation and drama of an existential battle without dialogue, monsters, CGI or human antagonists.

The trailer, in contrast, seems downright chatty: we hear Redford broadcasting a distress call – three times!– and screaming “help” twice at a distant freighter. Nevertheless, the excerpted scenes are notable for their human silence, the preponderance of ambient sound, the deliberateness and patience of Redford’s performance and the swell and contraction of the editorial rhythm.

Preferring graphic cards, rather than voice-over-artistry, All is Lost lays out its premise in three brief, redundant lines: “Alone at Sea/ A man has only himself/ And his will to survive.”

Many action trailers rely on a slow build toward a energetic climax typically presented via on screen action, volume, pacing, music cues and clipped dialogue. In this trailer, while the general tendency is toward a shorter interval between edit decisions, the shots breathe, the sequences seethe and the kinetic energy comes in waves.

Interestingly, the climactic drive toward the concluding image is achieved with words, conveyed through a succession of review “blurbs,” featuring the exceptionally strong critical reaction to the film and Redford’s work in it. Punctuation and superlatives tell us what to think and feel, as much as anything we see on screen. These white on black cards, intercut to scenes of the protagonist giving way to despair and physical agony, conclude in a sequence of (3) cards cut to an increasingly insistent bass chord, succeeded by an heroic image of Redford facing his fate. The film pulses rather than crescendoes.

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The final image, prior to a cut to black, is of the life raft –seen earlier in the trailer in both packed and deployed status– as seen from above. Its stenciled label distills and revises the copy treatment in a very literal manner: What a man, alone at sea, has is only a “life raft” to survive.

The raft, however, is empty. Is this the achievement promised in the title? Has all been lost? Is this a tease, with Redford out of frame, doing the back stroke or spear fishing for his dinner? It’s an evocative and shocking image. Might this Hollywood movie terminate tragically? Has our protagonist perished?

For a trailer about a film set on the horizonless seas, it’s remarkable that most shots are medium or close rather than epic or establishing. This trailer engages the viewer in the intimate experience of the protagonist rather than marveling at the sublime power and threat of the sublime and terrible seas. The one notably long shot is at night, in which foreground (a flare being sent up) and background (a massive lighted container ship, passing in the distance) are telescoped into heart-aching proximity. Distance and context is denied, as when Redford consults a nautical map that the viewer can’t read or assimilate. We know even less where we are than the sailor.

There are 76 edits in the 2:23 minute trailer. That’s a pace more closely associated with drama than action adventure, a pace that subtly positions the film and its appeals to an audience. Serious acting is on offer here, shown in excerpted shots of Redford, his weathered skin and knowing countenance (animated by world-weary eyes) perform scenes needing no words to explain. Likewise, serious acting is described (and lauded) in the critical notices memorialized on the graphic cards.

The “quality” is driven home by the card that mentions Redford’s two academy awards; the art is visible in the deliberate and dignified control of his movement and gesture. Though there is significant action in the trailer and tension in the music cue and sound design, the trailer advertises a film that will involve you emotionally, as well as kinetically and viscerally.

Prompted to consider the final image at the behest of my friends at thefinalimage blog, I was struck by the verbal overdetermination of the message of the visual one: the final image of Redford’s circular life raft floating on a turquoise sea, shot from directly overhead. It’s a big orange “O,” a letter that both in its vocalization and in its graphic value signifies absence.

On the lips of the utterer, “O” opens a cavity into the mouth beyond; in psychoanalytic terms, its signifies (literally and figuratively) the introjection of the lost other into the self. The grieving mourner who stutters, “O…O…O” attempts the impossible preservation of the lost beloved through incorporation. It’s a symbolic rite of memorialization and immortalization and, of course, inarticulate (!) grief.

Here in the middle of the sea, the vacant raft tells the story of an absent and presumed dead–drowned or shark-eaten– hero. Audiences for the trailer, who have seen the movie and read about its fateful interaction between capitalist captain and the random destruction of a global system of production and distribution, will understand the big empty circle as ironic meta-commentary on unintended consequence. Even those who haven’t, can easily interpret this symbol.

At the more fundamental level of commercial reception, a viewer’s likely reaction to the empty raft might be “oh no”– an utterance that acknowledges this unwelcome resolution of our hero’s struggle in the same breath with which it denies it. While we might read the evidence as a spoiler, and criticize the trailer as a “tell all,” (because of the coherent and completed story arc that’s been presented), we may suspect that there is more to the plot than an extended futile struggle followed by agonizing, solitary and watery death.

The trailer dares you to read it according to the evidence, inviting you to see the film in order to confirm or disprove its devastating promise. Over and above the likely rewards of Redford’s performance, this is a compelling hook.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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