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When the hero of Robert Zemeckis Cast Away returns to civilization after spending
four years marooned on a South Pacific island, hes welcomed back in a homecoming
staged by his employers. We glimpse but a second of the ceremony, and even that we see
only through a videotape thats being played in an empty office. The movie has more
important things on its mind right then: the first reunion between Chuck Noland and his
former fiancee who, having given him up for dead, has married another man. The moment is
typical of the way the surprisingly low-key Cast
Away works: action that other films (including other Zemeckis films) would deliver
with great fanfare are here muttered out of one corner of the movies mouth.
Noland (Tom Hanks) is a systems analyst for a worldwide express delivery service whos trying to balance the demands of his job against those of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt, in a small part). On the day after Christmas hes called away on business, and during the overseas flight his companys courier jet encounters a storm that first blows the plane off-course, then out of the sky altogether. Noland is the sole survivor, and in his tiny life raft he washes up onto a meager nub of an islanda claustrophobic strip of beach backed by a couple of rugged peaks and a jungle whose one bounty is its coconut trees. When Noland picks up a couple of packages that followed him from the wreckage and stands surveying his new home, the movie seems to be asking us, What would you do in his place?
Part of Nolands charm is that he isnt any smarter than we are: he knows no better way of making a fire than rubbing two sticks together, and only by accident does he discover that its easier to slice than beat a coconut open. Other packages from the plane wash ashore, and he finds a use for most of their contents. (A pair of ice-skates comes in particularly handy.) He doesnt have a life on the islandtheres nowhere to go, nothing to doand for four long years he lives in a suspended state with only his yearning to keep him company. But when the laws of probability finally give in and provide him with the means to save himself, and he makes his way back to civilizationback to the girlfriend, the job, the places he knewhe finds that leaving the island isnt the same thing as escaping it. Cast Away is at its best in showing how irreversible the past is, how stained we are by our experiences, and in Hanks and Zemeckis hands these changes arent treated as matters of wistful contemplation. Theyre shattering.
Robert Zemeckis change of style in Cast Away is so close to miraculous that the Vatican ought to be notified. For 20 years hes specialized in hyperactive entertainments that have the character and grace of a loudly-struck gong, but his Cast Away is a model of restrained storytelling thats studded with a series of pure emotional peaks. Its content to slip its detailsa blinking light, sayinto odd corners of the frame and let us notice them when we will. Just before the crash, one of the jets crew members bashes his head against a door jamb, and the action occurs in such a blur of activity that we want to confirm that it happenedwere arent used to mainstream films working this deftly. Zemeckis finds some brilliant ways to make us feel the frailty and helplessness of Nolands situation, as when the camera gradually pulls backwards from his inflatable life raft as it pitches about in the storm until its a mere leaf among the towering waves.
Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles keep the movie focused on Nolands state of mind by slicing away everything extraneous to his story. The plane crash and Nolands rescue are both brisk affairs, gotten through with a minimum of special effects or hyperbole. The island scenes are played without any background music, and some of them have no more than a word or two of dialogue, giving us the time and space to accept Nolands grief and rage as our own. In Broyles savvy script, Nolands survival confuses and upsets the loved ones whove written him out of their lives. In these scenes Cast Away protects its characters with touching propriety, as in a devastating view of Hunts character thats discreetly given to us through a plate glass window.
Broyles and Zemeckis brave certain ridicule by paying so much attention to a Wilson volleyball that Noland finds in one of the packages. After Noland accidentally bleeds on it, he impulsively draws a face in the blood that gives the ball a homely personality, and by degrees Wilson becomes his surrogate companion, until man and object are bonded in an emotionally detailed relationship that would be deranged in any other context. We form neurotic attachments to inanimate objects even in normal times, but Wilson is the invention of a mind thats steeped in loneliness. Nolands interactions with the ball most obviously recall Warren Oates talking to the lifeless head in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but they also bring to mind Robert De Niros one-sided conversations with the celebrity cardboard cutouts in The King of Comedy. Its hard to face such dismal expressions of loneliness because they make us feel like social spastics; were quick to dismiss them as ludicrous because theyd otherwise fill us with shame. Theyre usually glossed over when they do appear in movies (as in the tug of kinship that Billy Crudup feels for a damaged flower at the end of his acid trip in Almost Famous), but Cast Away puts Wilson at the center of its action.
Cast Away is so intelligent for most of its running time that the obviousness of its missteps are surprising. It opens with an aggressively bad scene in which Noland is seen hectoring his employees about the importance of time management, as if to prepare us for another yuppie-awakening flick. (Once he reaches the island, Noland is an Everymanhe learns the same lessons that you or I would.) As if to complete a pair of bookends, the movies closing scene is marred by a character who is meant to represent the moist and effervescent promise of life, yet whose vulgarity is jarring in a story full of muted emotions. One wishes that the middle-brow pun built into Nolands name didnt exist, and despite Zemeckis general hard-headedness, he underscores the poignancy of a couple of late sequences with some gooey string music. And while product placements are probably an irreversible fact of life, Cast Away is cheapened by having a real-life delivery services logo thrust before the camera in so many scenes. Would it have been so hard to invent a fictitious company?
When the jet pilots dead body washes ashore, Noland rummages through the mans pockets and then buries him, and standing over the finished grave he thinks a minute before realizing theres nothing to say beyond, Sothats it. Its a pure Tom Hanks line, and Hanks delivers it with a perfect blend of respect and disappointment. (The burial gave Noland something to do that day.) Hanks has appeared in so many earnest movies that its easy to forget how diligent and affecting he can be as an actor; in any case, this movie needs someone with his common touch because we spend so much time in Nolands company. Never less assuming than he is here, Hanks' Noland is a man abashed by his turn of luck, as if he were Fates chump. The one time that his performance becomes animated in a way that might be mistaken for a stars showing off, its absolutely called for by the momentafter all, Noland has just created fire.
Cast Away is a solid portrait of a man whos suddenly forced to see his life in terms of distances, both geographic and emotional; it offers a convincing demonstration of how bitterness and optimism can taint each other, even within the same person. You feel slowed-down and appreciative when you come out of it; it puts you back on the street with a fresh pair of eyes.
- Tom Block