A review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Director – Robert Zemeckis; writer - William Broyles Jr.; director of photography - Don Burgess; editor - Arthur Schmidt; music - Alan Silvestri; production designer - Rick Carter; producers - Steve Starkey, Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis, and Jack Rapke. Starring – Tom Hanks (Chuck Noland), Helen Hunt (Kelly Frears), Nick Searcy (Stan), Chris Noth (Jerry Lovett) and Lari White (Bettina Peterson). 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks Pictures. 143 minutes. Rated PG-13.
An Enterprising Twist on an Age-Old Story
We knew it would be amazing to see Tom Hanks play the lead in Cast Away, physically transforming himself from a tubby FedEx employee to a gaunt, sinewy island survivor. But this is moviemaking, not “That’s Incredible!” Is Cast Away a good movie?
As entertainment goes, yes, Cast Away surprised me by being far better than the last few films by directed by Robert Zemeckis. There’s enough good, simple, visual storytelling going on here to make it a rewarding big-screen experience. And it avoids sentimental platitudes and new-agey preaching, which I can’t say about his more recent “important” films like Contact and Forrest Gump. Cast Away manages to run its 140 minutes without giving in to the temptation for easy, convenient, crowd-pleasing happy endings, predictable formulas, or obvious symbolism.
However, one cannot review this film very well without exposing one simple secret, that even the film’s trailer gave away.
So keep reading only if you already know whether or not hanks’ character survives the island ordeal.
Cast Away‘s three-act outline probably won’t surprise you. It’s an age-old tale… the worldly man being taught better values and returning to his old life a changed man. In a way, it’s a better Grinch story than that other, botched Grinch film that proved so popular this year. Instead of the Whos, the elements teach this film’s hero a lesson and give him a new heart.
Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee obsessed with control and deadlines. “The World on Time” is the company’s slogan. But soon, after a devastating plane crash, he finds himself in a world outside of time. He’s stranded on a tropical island that’s as beautiful as it is cruel. Slowly, the gravity of the situation sinks in, both for him and for us. And then, not as slowly as I would have liked, we watch him struggle to cope. Before you know it, four years have passed.
It’s good that the island scenes are more convincing than the early, civilized-world scenes, which are packed with obvious setups. “I’ll be right back!” Chuck shouts back to his fiancée. She’s just given him an antique pocket watch for Christmas. He’ll lose almost everything in the crash… but do you think he’ll somehow still have the watch with him?
Watching Chuck learn to survive, and learn what is really important in life, rewards the viewer with moments of simple wisdom. It is enlightening to watch him search for ways to cope without all of the modern conveniences we take for granted. Zemeckis is wise to make this the core of the film, and not to muddle things with flashes of people on the mainland going ahead with a funeral.
Ironically, Chuck is still dependent on FedEx to survive. He is left with only the contents of a few of the packages from the crash that wash up on the beach. It’s funny to see the frivolity and meaninglessness of certain items, when only necessities count, but also fascinating to see how quickly Chuck discerns practical and inventive uses for them.
There is so much to contemplate on the island. Landscapes like that are just crying out with cosmic, timeless questions. God’s creation was designed to draw our attention to the important things. Starscapes humble us, leave us in awe, grateful for beauty. Oceans roar with a voice that puts us in our place. The wilderness is full of danger, but also holds grace for those who are patient and who look with eyes to see. I wish the film had given us more time on the island, just soaking up the scenery.
There is one golden opportunity to elevate this story to something more, something profound. What basic assumptions about life will Chuck have to re-examine, now that he realizes his lack of control over his life and his world? In other words, turning the question to us… what do we need that we have forgotten about? What are we neglecting, in our crazy, light-speed lives?
Perhaps the most important idea of the film is that Chuck needs to converse with somebody. As he fashions a companion out of a volleyball, naming it “Wilson,” he begins a series of conversations that recall Robert Duvall’s intense one-sided dialogues with God in The Apostle. The silent volleyball stares back. And the silence speaks volumes.
It struck me that the Presence and Performance of Silence in this film is more important than even Zemeckis realizes. We have so much noise, so much speed today. How profound, that Wilson’s still small voice would become the one to whom Chuck must now listen, on whom he now depends.
Is Wilson a symbol for God? Obviously Chuck must “have faith” or at least “suspend disbelief” to carry on these conversations. And soon you can see he’s crossed the line into total belief in his fantasy.
Unfortunately, Zemeckis treats this idea just as lightly and shallowly as he did in Contact. The important thing, we are shown, is that Chuck has faith enough to make this one-sided relationship work for him. Later, when an inevitable transition comes for Chuck, he no longer needs this “fantasy.” It has only been a tool. It was his own invention, his own action, that was the real value here, and so he goes on his merry way, none the weaker for having cast off this imaginary relationship, thankful that he has made use of it.
Is that what faith means to Zemeckis? I would say probably so. In Forrest Gump we learned that all of life’s cruelties, even the worst mental and spiritual traumas suffered by Vietnam vets, can be cured with sentimental platitudes and Hallmark-card answers. In Contact, he condoned faith, but in the same way that the song from The Prince of Egypt condoned faith: “There can be miracles if you believe.” That makes belief the controlling factor, not God, who can work miracles whether we believe or not. None of these films point to a higher power who will hear us when we call. All of the blessings that come Chuck’s way… they’re not blessings. They’re good fortune coinciding with his rapt attention. They’re mere chance. They don’t mean anything.
With Gump, Contact, and Cast Away, Zemeckis is obviously coming to think of himself as a cinematic philosopher. That’s too bad, considering he really hasn’t shown us that he has that much to say. He is, first and foremost, a master of spectacle. He stands just a step below Spielberg and Lucas in that department. He’s an adventure man. For all of the storytelling on the island, when I think of Cast Away I will always remember first and foremost the overwhelmingly staged plane crash, which left me gasping for air. I’ll remember the creepy sounds of the elements on land and at sea. I’ll never forget some of the breathtaking views on that bizarre and lonely island. I wish he would focus on these strengths. When he quits focusing on spectacle and starts teaching, then the film becomes disappointingly shallow.
As the film neared its end, I fought the urge to walk out, because I feared Zemeckis’s weakness would get the better of him. I dreaded that he would boil it all down into a simple moral lesson for us. Impressively, he holds back fairly well. Yes, he gives us lots of visual hints that our world is full of conveniences that we take for granted. But he also lets the story take unexpected, and surprisingly unhappy, turns at the end that ring very true. Chuck even takes a stand that honors responsibility as much as personal happiness, a rare lesson these days in the land of Follow-Your-Heart-No-Matter-What.
While his philosophical ventures seem stuck in the shallow end of the pool, Zemeckis is still making an important step here as a filmmaker. The most admirable thing about Cast Away is its restraint. The movie works best when it convinces us of its environment and surroundings. As I mentioned before, the island scenes are beautifully crafted, and I wish there had been more of them.
Occasionally, though, Zemeckis can’t resist leaving reality for a moment that could only exist in the movies. There’s a moment near the end in a rainstorm when the music swells, a woman runs out into the rain, and we rocket out of Reality into a moment so purely Hollywood, so incongruous, that I laughed out loud.
Thankfully, the film recovers from this lapse. It succeeds more by what it avoids than by what it accomplishes. Elsewhere, it abstains from sentimental music almost entirely. It shows more than it tells, the first rule for any artist worth his or her salt. It has less dialogue than almost any movie you’re likely to see released by a major studio this decade. And best of all, it avoids the predictable happy endings that a lesser director would have forced onto the story.
Many critics have complained that the film ends on a false note. I am disappointed by the conclusion too, which seems to assert that Chuck’s life only really takes on value when there’s a woman he can pursue. In a more general sense, though, I like the conclusion. It suggests that life is better when you stop trying to chase what you want, when you stop trying to control everything. When you stand back and see what life… or I would say what Grace… brings you, then life is infinitely more meaningful. Recognize that it’s not all about you, and that you are a small but important, and best of all, loved part of creation, and then things start to make sense.
Grace, or any kind of benevolent power isn’t, and never has been, in Zemeckis’ film vocabulary. But for a believer, Cast Away might be, whatever the director intended, a vivid reminder of just how many ways God can provide for us in the midst of trial, just how he can bring new life and new possibilities where it seems there is only despair.