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Cast Away

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Cast Away

Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 143 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Viveka Davis, Valerie Wildman

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

The first hint of where "Cast Away" is headed comes with its title. Instead of the one-word "Castaway," which conjures up romanticized fare like "Swiss Family Robinson" or slapstick comedy like "Gilligan's Island," the title is split into "Cast Away," as in cast away from everyone and everything that ever gave you comfort. Further, the handling of the production itself carries forth the theme, with the filmmakers casting away the cinematic conventions generally employed to manipulate an audience. Far from the kind of formulaic event movie we usually get around the holidays, "Cast Away" is a nervy exercise in bare bones storytelling.

It starts in a deceptively traditional fashion, as we meet Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a fiercely dedicated FedEx troubleshooter who travels the globe preaching the gospel of tight organization and effective time management to employees. After returning from a successful trip to Russia, Chuck prepares to enjoy Christmas in Memphis with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt, in an understated, winning performance). But the festivities are interrupted when he is called away to deal with a problem in Malaysia.

Soon after, Chuck sits in a company plane, gazing at an extra special gift from Kelly a stopwatch that once belonged to her grandfather, with her photo on the inside while the pilots try to navigate through a horrific storm over the South Pacific. Suddenly, there is an explosion and the aircraft crashes into the water below, hurling Chuck beneath the wreckage. A life raft saves him and he eventually ends up on a small island several hundred miles from the middle of nowhere.

After the plane crash, a harrowing, realistic sequence nearly as terrifying as the one in "Fearless," the film's presentation style shifts almost as radically as Chuck's circumstances. Director Robert Zemeckis, working with Tom Hanks for the first time since "Forrest Gump," takes no easy outs. Where the camera shifted relentlessly during the Russian segment, mirroring the troubleshooter's agitated state of mind, it barely moves once Chuck crawls onto the island. For the next hour or so, there is no background music; no cutaways to loved ones worrying back in Memphis, nothing but a stark, intelligent portrait of a man trying to get by.

In interviews for the film, Tom Hanks acknowledged that some of the creative team grew dispirited when "Survivor" became a TV phenomenon, fearing that their years of hard work might be undermined by the game show. In fact, "Survivor" probably helped the production by showing that life on a beautiful tropical island is far more difficult that it looks. After viewing the struggles of the 16 contestants, the notion of a man facing such challenges alone seems even more daunting.

Hanks gained 30 plus pounds to prepare for the role. After the early island scenes were shot, the film closed down for a year, allowing the actor time to drop the weight. Hanks' physical transformation is quite impressive, but his extraordinary acting makes it pale by comparison. His performance is completely down to earth and unaffected. At no point does it feel like we are witnessing an actor trying to writhe his way to another Oscar. Instead, we simply watch Chuck try to find drinking water, crack a coconut without tools and build a fire. His trials are fascinating and his silence amplifies the gravity of the situation.

Once Chuck has taken care of his bodily needs, he must focus on staying sane. He keeps the photo of Kelly on constant display, giving himself someone to long for. Although he salvages a number of FedEx parcels and makes smart use of their contents, he leaves one package unopened and ready for delivery, giving himself a task that must some day be taken care of. Not a spiritual man (when the body of a crew member washes ashore, he buries it without prayer, looking at the makeshift grave and flatly muttering, "Well, that's it."), Chuck recognizes that he must have someone to talk to and comes up with an ingenious solution.

Ads for the movie make it clear that Chuck eventually returns to civilization (I suspect Zemeckis revealed that piece of information so that viewers would remain in the moment instead of fretting about whether or not Chuck would ever get home). As for what happens, suffice to say that the ending does not betray the integrity of what has come before.

It will be interesting to see if mass audiences embrace "Cast Away." Some may find the underlying world-view too bleak, but my guess is that the goodwill Tom Hanks engenders will carry them through. By the way, you'll need to set aside a little over two hours and 20 minutes for the film, but rest assured, you will not be bored for a second.

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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