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
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
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