Cast Away
Cast Away

USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 143 minutes.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Christopher Noth, Lari White, Geoffrey Blake, Jenifer Lewis, David Allen Brooks, Semion Suradikov
Writer: William Broyles Jr.
Music: Alan Silvestri
Cinematographer: Don Burgess
Producers: Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Director: Robert Zemeckis


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

The good news is that Cast Away is an interesting and courageous experiment. Great filmmaking requires that risks be taken. The bad news is that even if the gamble works, risk-taking in itself does not guarantee a great film. Cast Away can't decide what kind of film it wants to be: a love story or a survival tale. By trying to be both, it succeeds at being neither–not fully, anyway. Though ultimately somewhat dissatisfying, there is nevertheless much to appreciate in Cast Away.

For the benefit of readers who have just returned from an extended holiday on a desert island, Tom Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a Federal Express manager who spends more time traveling than he does at home with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt). On one ill-fated trip, his flight (a Federal Express cargo plane) is blown off course and goes down in the South Pacific. Chuck is finally washed ashore on a tiny atoll far from shipping routes or inhabited land.

Cast Away is a film in four acts, an exposition establishing Chuck's life before the plane crash, Chuck's arrival on the island and initial struggle to survive, Chuck on the island four years later, and an epilogue. As has been widely reported, production was halted for a year after the first two acts were shot so that Hanks could pull a Raging Bull in reverse, dropping some 50 pounds to reflect the weight his character loses after four years of eating coconuts and fish.

The first act lacks drama, particularly because you know what's coming. Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. go by rote through movie conventions like the marriage proposal just before the ill-fated voyage. Yeah, OK, this is all going to be very tragic–just get on with it, already! Chuck even calls out "I'll be right back" as he gets on the plane, as a character about to die might do in a low-rent horror flick. The one notable element of the first act is the establishment of a time motif. Every move Chuck makes is governed by the clock.Tom Hanks

When it finally comes, the airplane crash sequence is spectacular, and the drama begins. Chuck's initial struggle to survive on the deserted island, much of it occurring in complete silence, is fantastic. One outstanding sequence shows Chuck's efforts to start a fire, which proves to be extremely difficult and even injurious. Apparently, rubbing two sticks together for a few minutes is not all one needs to do.

The decision to halt shooting for a year has received the most publicity, but the most inspired production decision was to eliminate music from the soundtrack during Chuck's entire stay on the island. The indigenous sounds are far more effective in conveying stillness and solitude than any music, no matter how good, could have been. The focus is completely on Hanks, who carries the film on his shoulders with his outstanding acting–another Academy Award™ nomination awaits. The lack of music also meshes well with the time motif. The clock that ran Chuck's life just… stops. The audience and Chuck feel that together.

There are some minor problems, including the lack of sufficient drama surrounding Chuck's search for water. He's on the island for a full day (not to mention the time he spent passed out in his lifeboat) before he even attempts to get milk out of a coconut. Then Broyles throws Chuck a lifeline by having several Federal Express packages wash up on the island's beach. The blades on a pair of ice skates prove very useful–how convenient that someone is sending ice skates to Malaysia. The second act is so absorbing, however, that these problems are nothing to get agitated about.
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Also washing ashore in a Federal Express package is a volleyball on which Chuck paints a face and names "Wilson," after its brand name. His relationship with Wilson is either an attempt to comment on the human need for companionship and the bizarre behavior induced by prolonged periods of solitude OR a convenient script device allowing Hanks to speak more lines. Actually, it's a little of both. As a script device, Wilson is unnecessary because Chuck could have just talked to himself. Almost everybody does. Thematically, Wilson works fitfully well. While the unexpected intensity of Chuck's attachment to Wilson is not implausible (not at all), Broyles might have done a better job of making the audience believe it.

Broyles doesn't show the relationship develop. Cast Away suddenly skips ahead four years, when we find a very different Chuck, sun-bleached, slimmed-down, tough, hirsute, and, as one might expect, a bit wacky. While it's an unexpected and shocking before-and-after contrast, it avoids showing Chuck's changes over time, the beginnings of which are not yet fully established before the end of the second act. It also removes one of the most interesting episodes on the island from our sight, leaving it to be related verbally in the last act. Too much is left to be told to us in the last act, in what might be considered tidy Hollywood fashion. Despite that, Zemeckis refrains from such total patness, instead leaving a bit to the viewers' imagination.

The lack of a clear Hollywood ending is not why Cast Away fails to fully satisfy (in fact, I liked the ending… I found the contrast of the vistas in the final scene to the vistas on the desert island particularly effective). Rather, it is Cast Away's failure to comment memorably on the human will to survive or on the disparity between our modern civilization and our animal past. Cast Away tries a bit, but ultimately sets its sights lower, focusing on the dull romance that provides the film's bookends. Kelly is underwritten (shorthand for "girlfriend"); we don't know why she and Chuck are together in the first place, and the passion between them feels lackluster (not that a big melodrama like the one between Mark Walberg and Diane Lane in The Perfect Storm would have been preferred). The compelling questions are whether and how Chuck will survive, whether he will leave his island or wait to be found, whether there is greater risk in sailing the ocean in a makeshift raft or staying on the illusory safety of the island, where the first infection or serious mishap will likely kill him. The issue of whether Chuck and Kelly will ever see each other again, and if they do, whether they will reunite is simply not of as much interest and is undeserving of such a large chunk of the running time. Perhaps that's unromantic, but the way it's presented in Cast Away, the love story just seems like small potatoes.

Review © January 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2000 20th Century Fox and Dreamwork L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.

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