Cast Away (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I'm sure there will be wags who will glibly compare Cast Away to the likes of "Gilligan's Island" and "Survivor", but, in tone, approach, and overall accomplishment, this atypical Robinson Crusoe tale bears a strong resemblance to one of director Robert Zemeckis' earlier efforts, Contact. No, Cast Away isn't about space or messages from another planet, but, at its core, neither was Contact. Both films ask the same crucial existential question, one that Shakespeare pondered for years: taking all things into account, what does it mean to be human? How do we cope with loss, hopelessness, and isolation, and still find the courage to face the next day? The love and dream of a dead father sustained Jodie Foster's character in Contact. For Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away, it is the promise offered by the smile of his equally absent - and equally beloved - wife-to-be.

The last time Zemeckis and Hanks teamed up, a legend was born - the idiot savant Forrest Gump. A brilliantly conceived trip through the latter half of the 20th century, Forrest Gump was part folksy feel-good drama and part well-concealed satire. The 1994 blockbuster offers much more than its detractors, and even some of its supports, acknowledge. Those expecting Zemeckis and Hanks to re-examine the same territory in Cast Away will be surprised - aside from the films' Oscar potential, there's little synergy. Cast Away will not be the crowd-pleaser that Forrest Gump was, but it's a deeper, more rewarding experience. And, just when you think it's over, it defies expectations and metamorphoses into something different and more compelling.

The year is 1995. Chuck Noland is an overworked Federal Express exec who zips from country to country troubleshooting problems and streamlining operations. His mantra is to do anything necessary to get a package to its destination on time. In his younger days, he was known for having stolen a kid's bicycle to make a delivery after his truck broke down. Fresh from a trip to Russia, Chuck is enjoying Christmas dinner with his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), and his family, when a call comes in: he's needed in Malaysia. A short time later, he's airborne, flying through stormy skies over the South Pacific. Suddenly, the plane is off course, there's an explosion, and Chuck finds himself underwater in the belly of a crashed plane. An inflatable life raft carries him to the surface and bears him to a deserted tropical island, where he learns that survival without the trappings of civilization is far more difficult than it's made out to be in books, on television, and in the movies. There may not be any humans on the island, but something is making noise in the jungle at night. And how is he to obtain food and fresh water? Without proper tools, simple tasks like opening a coconut or making a fire become herculean efforts.

Cast Away is divided into three clearly-defined acts: the setup, the main story, and the aftermath. Although the movie's centerpiece is the 75-minute portion detailing Chuck's experiences while marooned, it's the third act, which offers no easy solutions for difficult situations, that elevates the film from the level of a stirring, innovative adventure to an fully satisfying drama. This is the film Red Planet could have been if it had possessed the guts to challenge viewers rather than saddle them with a worn-out, regurgitated plot.

The plane crash which occurs during the first half-hour is handled differently from almost any aerial disaster I have seen in a motion picture. Zemeckis employs digital effects, but not to show the crash (he uses them primarily afterwards, to generate Perfect Storm-style waves). We see events unfold from inside the plane, amidst the wind and darkness, and it results in an eerie and genuinely unsettling situation. Then, once Chuck is in the water, the sense of danger is palpable - especially during one unforgettable moment when the plane's spinning propeller is bearing down upon his small life raft.

The scenes on the island are presented with uncommon intelligence (unlike similar events chronicled in the lame Six Days, Seven Nights, which used similar circumstances). We follow Chuck on his step-by-step journey of survival, where even the smallest things, like getting a drink of coconut milk or using MacGyver-like ingenuity to devise a tool, become significant accomplishments. Zemeckis' approach to this segment of the film is flawless. He never cuts away from Chuck - there are no "back in Memphis" scenes that would have broken the mood, nor is there any incidental music. For more than an hour, the only sounds heard are the island's natural noises (and a little dialogue as Chuck starts talking to a volley ball that becomes his lone "companion"). Also, the script doesn't cook up any hard-to-swallow, melodramatic situations or artificial conflicts. In fact, those expecting a routine adventure film may be disappointed. Cast Away is always interesting, but not necessarily in a traditional manner.

By the time the 30-minute epilogue arrives, we are already deeply attached to Chuck's character - a fact that makes the final dilemma harder to cope with. Once again, Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr avoid the melodramatic, manipulative clich├ęs that could have reduced Cast Away to a lesser film. They remain true to the characters and situations until the end, which involves literal and figurative crossroads. There is a catharsis of sorts, but it will not be definitive enough to satisfy all viewers.

For the level of his work in Cast Away, it wouldn't surprise me if Hanks earned another Oscar nomination. The movie's success rests with him, since he is on screen by himself for more than half of the running time. It's one thing for an actor to triumph by playing off others; it's another thing altogether for him to excel with no one else around and virtually no dialogue to speak. In addition, the physical changes that Hanks had to go through to play the part are dramatic - he was forced to gain and lose weight quickly and in extraordinary amounts (so much so that a "weight loss trainer" is credited at the end). An actor willing to go through the rigors Hanks endured is certainly worthy of some kind of notice, especially when he turns in a top-notch performance.

The only other significant player is Helen Hunt, who has become ubiquitous in motion pictures now that "Mad About You" is behind her. This is her fourth film in four months (the other three: Dr. T and the Women, Pay It Forward, and What Women Want). This time, she's more of a supporting player, but, despite limited screen time, she manages to develop Kelly into a flesh-and-blood individual, which is crucial to the movie's emotional underpinning. Of all Hunt's recent outings, this is easily her strongest work.

For as long as he works in Hollywood, Robert Zemeckis will be associated with Forrest Gump. As good a film as that was, it does not represent his finest work. In many ways, both Contact and Cast Away are stronger and more compelling features. During a year that has not been known for strong theater-going experiences, Cast Away stands near the top of the heap. It has all the hallmarks of a great motion picture: well-developed characters, solid drama, non-traditional adventure, and an intelligent script. At nearly two and one-half hours, it's the perfect length - not too long and not too short. Whether or not Cast Away earns any Oscar nominations, it's among my picks as one of the best films of the year.

Cast Away (United States, 2000)

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Screenplay: William Broyles Jr.
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Alan Silvestri
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2000
Run Time: 2:24
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1