“Cast Away” is in some ways a pseudo-bottleneck movie, it removes something that would usually be considered crucial to the smooth operation of any movie, characters. Or at least for the most part, before our protagonist washes up on the unnamed island we see him propose to his fiancé whilst furiously trying to rearrange work schedules to be there for her. It is the island though, that is the soul of “Cast Away” and I have huge respect for Robert Zemeckis who has managed to create a lengthy and consistently engaging movie using almost just the dedication to acting demonstrated by Tom Hanks and his heartfelt method of film making.
Civilisation is where the film begins, and Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is working as a FedEx employee furiously working to keep everything running smoothly but he is fighting the tide in doing so. His job forces him to take endless plane trips to and from home, but he comes back for a Christmas dinner with his family. Interrupted by his work, Chuck has to fly to Malaysia to resolve some issues with the company which threatens future plans between him and Kelly (Helen Hunt). After driving to the airport together, Chuck and Kelly exchange Christmas gifts. Chuck is given a family heirloom of Kelly’s — a pocket watch with her portrait inside — whilst Chuck presents her with a small gift wrapped box which renders her speechless. Walking away he shouts “I’ll be right back” and boards the plane. Dramatic irony at its best.
If the title didn’t give it away, the plane inevitably doesn’t make it to its destination and it goes down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, leaving Chuck as the only survivor. After a night floating in the stormy waters he washes up on an island and is forced to come to terms with his predicament and begin to learn how to survive. His early attempts at finding food and creating fire are somewhat comical yet Zemeckis and Hanks succeed at making Chuck a sympathetic character. Every time he fails, we feel the sting of disappointment.
Now of course being the lone survivor means that Chuck has no one to speak too and for some time this is fine as it is superb watching him handle this new state of affairs. The focus is placed on his day to day life figuring out the island and learning how to survive, he doesn’t have time to stop and monologue about his affairs to benefit our understanding, and this genuinely compliments the survivalist tone the movie consistently evokes.
Hardly a short film at over 2 hours, Zemeckis rightly assumes that we can only deal with so much of Tom Hanks bashing coconuts and catching fish. On the shore with Hanks is a number of FedEx packages that Chuck has rounded up and proceeded to open for practical reasons. One of these packages contains a Wilson volleyball that Chuck accidentally bloodies when he throws it in a fit of rage after slicing his hand whilst attempting to create fire. Chuck finds the ball and creates a face out of his viscera, giving him a verbal channel for his thoughts.
For the most part the one sided dialogue between Hanks and Wilson (the ball never speaks) actually feels like a legitimate storytelling technique. It does not feel as though Zemeckis has not compromised his vision for the sake of keeping it interesting for the average viewer. Wilson benefits the story significantly and Chuck’s emphasis on making Wilson his companion ironically serves to heighten the feeling of isolation. When Chuck get’s frustrated and throws Wilson into the Ocean only to then race out after him during a storm to then apologise profusely for his actions doesn’t set off alarm bells, you know that something is being done very right. I’m also referring to the ball as a ‘him’ rather than an ‘it’ which feels surprisingly natural, he’d be proud.
Whether Chuck lives, dies, makes it off the island or not I will not spoil, though the film does skip 4 years and we see Chuck is still stranded and he has changed as a result. He has visibly lost weight, grown a beard and now wears a loin cloth. Hanks actually took 6 months out of filming in order to lose 50 lbs and grow that beard for his role, which I think shows the dedication of not just Hanks but the entire crew who went to work on “What Lies Beneath” during the hiatus.
This gap of time doesn’t quite feel real and I think I would have appreciated it if Zemeckis hadn’t totally removed the middle part of Chuck’s ordeal, instead opting for a more gradual descent into the island man that he becomes. Though moments before that such as when Chuck has to remove his own infected tooth using an ice-skate are horrifically well realised. I just see it as a missed opportunity to really delve into the nitty-gritty parts that entail being trapped on an island far from human contact, though in all fairness for the most part it is handled very well, this is just a little nitpick.
Tom Hanks’ performance alone was nominated for an Academy Award and it’s clear why. For all of its flaws and slight lack of polish, the character driven “Cast Away” wades through all of that and still becomes a fantastic film that brilliantly portrays one of the most terrifying prospects ever to face man — being without it.