When the hero of Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away returns to civilization after spending four years marooned on a South Pacific island, he’s 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 that’s 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 movie’s mouth.
Noland (Tom Hanks) is a systems analyst for a worldwide express delivery service who’s 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 he’s called away on business, and during the overseas flight his company’s 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 island—a 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 Noland’s charm is that he isn’t 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 it’s 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 doesn’t have a life on the island—there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do—and 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 civilization—back to the girlfriend, the job, the places he knew—he finds that leaving the island isn’t 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 aren’t treated as matters of wistful contemplation. They’re shattering.
Robert Zemeckis’ change of style in Cast Away is so close to miraculous that the Vatican ought to be notified. For 20 years he’s 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 that’s studded with a series of pure emotional peaks. It’s content to slip its details—a blinking light, say—into odd corners of the frame and let us notice them when we will. Just before the crash, one of the jet’s 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 happened—we’re aren’t used to mainstream films working this deftly. Zemeckis finds some brilliant ways to make us feel the frailty and helplessness of Noland’s situation, as when the camera gradually pulls backwards from his inflatable life raft as it pitches about in the storm until it’s a mere leaf among the towering waves.
Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles keep the movie focused on Noland’s state of mind by slicing away everything extraneous to his story. The plane crash and Noland’s 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 Noland’s grief and rage as our own. In Broyles’ savvy script, Noland’s survival confuses and upsets the loved ones who’ve written him out of their lives. In these scenes Cast Away protects its characters with touching propriety, as in a devastating view of Hunt’s character that’s 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 that’s steeped in loneliness. Noland’s 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 Niro’s one-sided conversations with the celebrity cardboard cutouts in The King of Comedy. It’s hard to face such dismal expressions of loneliness because they make us feel like social spastics; we’re quick to dismiss them as ludicrous because they’d otherwise fill us with shame. They’re 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 Everyman—he learns the same lessons that you or I would.) As if to complete a pair of bookends, the movie’s 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 Noland’s name didn’t 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 service’s logo thrust before the camera in so many scenes. Would it have been so hard to invent a fictitious company?
When the jet pilot’s dead body washes ashore, Noland rummages through the man’s pockets and then buries him, and standing over the finished grave he thinks a minute before realizing there’s nothing to say beyond, “So—that’s it.” It’s 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 it’s 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 Noland’s company. Never less assuming than he is here, Hanks’ Noland is a man abashed by his turn of luck, as if he were Fate’s chump. The one time that his performance becomes animated in a way that might be mistaken for a star’s showing off, it’s absolutely called for by the moment—after all, Noland has just created fire.
Cast Away is a solid portrait of a man who’s 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