Director: Robert Zemeckis
Here’s a film which had to be fascinating if only for its making. How director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks (who also produced and developed the story with screenwriter William Broyles Jr.) shot the first scenes, then took a nearly year-long hiatus so Hanks could lose weight and grow shaggy hair and beard to convey the looks of a man stranded on a deserted island for years. I think just this is unheard of, for a production to shut off so long that Zemeckis actually had time to shoot another movie (“What Lies Beneath”) in the meantime!
Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a Fed Ex efficiency expert from Memphis, Tennessee, who goes around the world to set up or improve Fed Ex branches. When we meet him, he’s in Moscow doing just that. We then follow him as he goes back home to his almost fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt) for a Christmas family dinner. But before she can spend much time with the man she loves, he’s beeped and leaves again, getting on yet another plane to go to yet another faraway place. “I’ll be right back,” he tells her, and if you know movie conventions, you can predict that he won’t. The plane flies right into a hellish storm and is forced to crash land into the Pacific, in a terrifyingly realistic sequence. Zemeckis shoots it in real time and from the point of view of Hanks’ character, and it’s as if you were there, with all the tumbling and fumbling, the crash into the ocean, the hammering of waves, the explosion of a reactor… That scene is truly a technical marvel; its five minutes are as intense as all of “The Perfect Storm”.
Chuck survives and floats to a deserted island, and so begins his journey. The early scenes are okay in setting things up, but this is what we’ve come for : Hanks, alone against nature. For more than an hour, the double Oscar winner is on his own. No co-stars, very little dialogue, no music score. No gimmicks either: no attack from pirates, no indigenes to befriend, no monkey butlers. This is not Gilligan’s Island. Basically, it’s this fat guy who’s used to live by the clock (Fed Ex job obliges) who finds himself in a situation in which all his planning skills are of very little use. Hanks. The ocean. Rocks. Palm trees. That’s it. Sounds boring? Well, it isn’t, no, in fact it’s riveting. It’s hard to describe what makes it so. It’s a bit like the opening of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the part with the mokeys going along with their daily business, fighting each other paws out, and then one figures he can use a bone to bash heads with, and it’s a moment of sheer triumph.
Much of “Cast Away” is like that. Zemeckis succeeds in putting us right there right now with Hanks on the island, using a lot of long uninterrupted cuts and point-of-view shots. It’s all very physical. Chuck cuts his feet, so he makes himself shoes out of cloth and string. He’s hungry, so he picks some coconuts, then he tries to find an efficient way to open their hard shells. Chuck is cold, so he tries to make fire, which proves to be much more work than you’d think. It rains sometimes, too, so he builds himself a shelter, and makes himself another little home in a cave. It’s like Chuck is back thousands of years ago, without any of civilisation’s quirks… Well, that’s not quite right. A few Fed Ex parcels did wash ashore with him, so he’s got that much going on, though it’s mostly disparate stuff, like a dress, ice skates, VHS tapes… And a Wilson volleyball, on which Chuck paints a face in blood. Besides the picture of Kelly he has in his pocket watch, Wilson is all he’ll have to keep him company.
For as long as it stays on the island, the film remains engrossing. This could have lasted for hours on end and I don’t think I would have been bored. Zemeckis always keeps it interesting, following this new millennium Robinson Crusoe through small victories and overbearing defeats, keeping us on our toes, but in the end, this is Hanks’ movie, and he’s extraordinary. His character spends four years on that island, and Hanks’ transformation is astonishing. Physically, as he turns thin and shaggy, but also psychologically, as he nearly loses all hope, keeping living just because it’s a life, carrying entire conversations with his volleyball, even pausing to listen to Wilson’s responses and getting into arguments!
(SPOILERS AHEAD) Yet, unfortunately, this has to end, and the movie loses momentum and fades into banality. Chuck’s escape from the island on a self-made raft kind of reminds of the end of The Truman Show, when Jim Carrey tries to escape his suburban prison on a sailing boat, keeping at it despite the impossible weather. Here too, there’s this sense of perseverance against all odds, the endurance of the human will and all that. The score returns, too, and it’s in Truman tones. Goody, then, but then “Cast Away” makes a mistake that “The Truman Show” avoided: it shows its protagonist’s return to the “real world”. To me, this is a bad idea right there. There’s almost no way this can end up not being anticlimactic. Zemeckis does keeps things nicely understated, with a strong sense of “now what?”, but all in all, the third act is a letdown. It mostly deals with Chuck’s reaction to finding out that his then girlfriend Kelly thought him dead, got married and had a daughter. Maybe if we felt for him, this would work, but we don’t and there is no emotional payoff. We never really got to know, let alone love Kelly in the first act, so it’s hard to be sorry our guy lost her. (END OF SPOILERS)
Because of that ill-fated third act, the picture is not as great as it could/should have been. It ends up being this terrific, quite unique chunk of very physical acting without a net from Tom Hanks alone on an island, sandwiched between sequences that don’t really add anything to it. We haven’t learned much, or really got into Chuck’s head. Hanks is great as an Everyman survivor, but I can’t say I’ve come to know much of a specific character, as I did last summer when I followed “Survivor” on TV. You really got to know Richard ‘fat naked fag’ Hatch, the show’s fascinating antihero; you got to understand little things about his and all of human nature. Yet in “Cast Away”, Chuck Noland the Fed Ex hardly ever reveals himself. The scenes in which he talks with his volleyball hint at something, some sort of eventual alienation that could have been interesting, and Hanks has an “actor’s moment” near the end in which he expresses some of what he felt through his ordeal, but it doesn’t quite cut it. It’s a nice speech, but that’s the problem: it’s just a nice little speech, not actual character development. It would have been better if what he talks about in hindsight had been felt throughout. In the end, “Cast Away” remains daring and quite unique even though it could have been even more, and Hanks’ performance is really something to be seen.