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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Everyone who took American Lit. 101 knows that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau advised us to be self-reliant and to simplify, respectively. If they were alive today, instead of looking at their own statues they would be building one to Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), who took their philosophies to a logical conclusion, however involuntarily. In a picture featuring Don Burgess's gorgeous cinematography the qualities of which are duplicated this year only by Peter Pau ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"); a virtual one-man, tour de force performance by Tom Hanks (who may be on the road to appropriating yet another Oscar); and a nicely toned-down appearance by Helen Hunt as Chuck Noland's girl friend, Kelly Frears--Robert Zemeckis scores big with a grand show that in some ways resembles his 1994 opus "Forrest Gump." Both "Gump" and "Cast Away" deal with internal voyages taken by their principal characters, but this time around Zemeckis hones in on scripter William Broyles Jr.'s intelligent, rapid-fire, cutting-edge FedEx executive who may be able to grasp a lot more about the world's reality than Gump ever could but who, like the mentally challenged hero of the 1994 film, has been so distracted that he has lost track of what is really important in life.

"Cast Away" has quite a bit going for it, qualities that make the movie an original. 1) Cameraman Burgess has photographed what is possibly the most agonizing minutes of an aircraft in trouble yet filmed, a shattering experience that guarantees the movie's absence on any airline company's agenda. 2) Burgess ably contrasts the use of a static camera when capturing the inertness of an uninhabited island in the South Pacific with a hand-held camera to capture the frenzy of an executive giving a staccato lecture to a group of Moscovites who have just been employed by Federal Express. (As product placements go, this movie does for FedEx as "What Women Want" does for Nike.) 3) Those in the audience who are travelers will catch the ironies of a highly-strung corporate honcho placed in the most languid situation possible, and the concept of what could be an unspoiled tropical island ripe for tourism by the very rich which is instead the equivalent of solitary confinement on Devil's Island.

Carefully developing his character from the start, Zemeckis makes sure that his final scene will be emotionally draining on the audience, a heartfelt, heartbreaking conclusion to a story dense with both allegorical and realistic meaning. Chuck Noland is giving a swift lecture to a group of new FedEx employees in Moscow, people who perhaps were heretofore laid-back souls casually putting in their time under a Communist government but now challenged to beat the clock if they want to keep their well-paid gigs. Though not holding the employees to the FedEx American standard, a guarantee that the package sent tonight will be received at its domestic destination by 10:30 the next morning, he insists that the crew be aware of the clock at every moment. On the way home to spend the Christmas holidays with his girl friend Kelly, his aircraft develops trouble and goes down into the waters of the South Pacific, killing all but Chuck--who at first is confident of rescue until he later realizes that his search party would have to comb an area larger than the size of Texas to locate him.

A long stretch in the middle part of the film shows this modern Robinson Crusoe adapting himself to the needs of physical survival which, once attained, allows him to turn to his spiritual side or, to put simply, to find a way to keep his sanity with no one but a volleyball which he appropriately names Wilson to hear his conversation. Four years later-- that's four YEARS later--he returns to his Memphis home amazed at the ease with which he could pick up food on a buffet groaning board and create a flame at the flick of a switch. For some moments we wonder whether Chuck has fallen in love with the extreme hardships he had to face and is ready, like Werner Herzog's Kasper Hauser, to return to the primitive life on his massive Walden Pond. Reappearing to his girl friend who had given him up for dead years earlier, Chuck arrives at a literal and metaphoric crossroads. He is ready to begin life anew.

It would not be a great leap to look at "Cast Away" as not only a contemporary "Robinson Crusoe" or even "Everyman" tale but as a speedup account of the world at the time of the Flintstones. Arriving on a island seemingly bare of birds, insects, or tools, Chuck learns how to make a primitive knife out of a couple of stones and how to get milk and meat from some coconuts that do everything in their power to resist his desire to crack them open. Equipped at least with the teaching of civilization unknown to prehistoric man, he does not take long in discovering how to light a fire without matches and keep it burning; how to vary his coconut diet with crustaceans and the fruits of the sea; how to built a raft that might keep him moving toward civilization despite the resistance of nature; even how to invent art to keep him occupied when the bare essentials of survival are guaranteed (he paints a face on the volleyball with his own blood). Primitive man creates art.

If Ed Harris gained 30 or 40 pounds for his role as the disspated title character in the movie "Pollock," then Tom Hanks had the more difficult role of losing 55 pounds over the sixteen months' period that Zemeckis gave him while that director proceeded to make another film in the interim. When you gaze at this legendary actor looking trim and fit-- presumably the result of keeping as active as a cave dweller hunting for food and having no pies, cakes or even bagels to help develop a spare tire--you may wonder as well whether you should forget about Club Med this year and go on your own to one of the few pieces of land in the world not already developed by Marriott or Hilton or Intercontinental. Critic Rex Reed, in a love-letter of a review, stated that he spent part of the picture crying, the other part shutting his eyes from the impact of Noland's journey. While I had to look away only when Noland proceeded to knock out an infected tooth with the use of a stone and the blades of an ice skate that washed ashore in a FedEx package, I'd have to admit that while Zemeckis' picture stretches the narrative form to its limit given the long period that Hanks performs monologues to his volleyball, the nearly two and one-half hours went by in a flash. "What's beautiful about the world is the world itself," said a grandmother in a greeting card to a young member of her family. Paradoxically the beauty of nature captured in this unusual and remarkable film is the very power that can kill or at the very least drive one insane.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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