Facing the Wilderness Within and Without in 'All Is Lost' and 'The Summit'

All Is Lost (Lions Gate DVD and Blu-ray; streaming via Amazon and iTunes) opens with Robert Redford's character awakening aboard his sailboat in the middle of the Pacific to find a hole punched in its hull by a stray shipping container. Writer/director J.C. Chandor's camera observes as Redford's character (never named, almost never speaking) assesses the damage, bails, and patches the hole. The first sign of deeper currents in Chandor's film is that the encounter with the container isn't really the driver of the plot, or what inspires the film's title.

It's sort of a surprise when Redford's character laboriously, methodically makes his craft seaworthy again. But the calm of the character's mid-ocean solo cruise has been breached as surely as the starboard side (and by a massive symbol of the 21-century ocean, almost a bit too on-the-nose). As the challenges mount, Redford's character is tested, set back, disappointed, unnerved. He is resourceful, but not endlessly so—Chandor makes a bit of business out of the character's use of a sextant, a venerable symbol of the self-reliant mariner, here dug out of its unopened box in the hold and put to use as other, more modern resources fall away.

It's not hard to see why Chandor cast Redford. In addition to his camera-caressed charisma, his weathered crags profile like a gentlemen outdoorsman, the kind of man who might sail the Pacific solo while also underestimating the danger of such a voyage. Redford's performance cracks in a couple of spots (e.g. an overwrought expletive), but he has always read as thoughtful onscreen, which helps enormously here. Even with nothing and no one to work against, he manages masterful work for the most part. (As does Chandor, forever coming up with fresh ways to shoot one character on what is effectively a single cramped set.)

But if Chandor had cast Brad Pitt (at 50, a generation younger than Redford), or someone younger still, this would have been a different film. More like an action movie or conventional thriller, perhaps, but distinct in more subtle ways, too. For as Redford's character makes increasingly desperate choices and gambits, you find yourself wondering why and how he can possibly succeed. Well, here's a theory: More than a mere portrait of the survival instinct, All Is Lost examines our reaction in the face of the fate we all have coming, and all the ways we deny it, elide it, try to cheat it, avoid it, thwart it, stave it off, utterly inevitable as it is for us all. And if you think you understand how Chandor ends the film, think about it again. And know that part of the film's point, it seems, is that all such stories eventually end the same way.

Adventure, death, and survival also play their respective roles in director Nick Ryan's The Summit (MPI DVD; streaming via Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix), though with many more lives in the balance. On Aug. 1, 2008, a party of 25 mountain climbers and guides made their final push on K2, the second-highest mountain in the world and by many reckonings the most treacherous. By dawn the following day, 11 of them were dead. With the use of a bounty of footage shot by the various expeditions, along with a few Touching the Void-style re-enactment sequences, Ryan attempts to recount and examine a disaster that shocked even the high-risk 8,000-meter-plus club.

The men and women who venture into the frigid, oxygen-starved "death zone" of the world's highest elevations tend to have strong personalities, which gives Ryan a number of compelling characters to work with, both among the survivors (Dutch climber Wilco Van Rooijen lasted two nights on the exposed slope below the summit) and among those who died (Irish climber Ger Sullivan emerges as a sort of tragic protagonist). And he's got a cracking good story, too, as the ambitions of these super type-As to make their goal clash with confused last-minute planning, bad luck, and the choice between leaving distressed climbers for dead (not uncommon practice in such extreme situations) and working to save them (the humane impulse that several of those interviewed by Ryan contend cost Sullivan his life). Many questions remain regarding the actions and the fates of the climbers, giving Ryan even more drama to work with.

What ultimately drags The Summit down a bit perhaps owes to this bounty of characters, story, and possibilities. Unable or unwilling to keep a more narrow focus, Ryan lets his film and the arguments and themes it carries sprawl. (Looping in Walter Bonatti, a non-summiting member of the Italian expedition that first conquered the peak in 1954, is at least one story thread too far.) Even more disastrous, he hopscotches the editing back and forth in the story and through the themes, perhaps hoping to build suspense and complexity but ultimately making for a muddled account with few of the larger resonances that Chandor achieves on a more modest scale.