Cast Away (2000)
Written by William Broyles Jr.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
I recently wrote about Robert Zemeckis in my review of his adaptation of The Witches. He’s a director whose work on the Back to the Future films I absolutely love. But I think much of his output in the 2000s & 2010s has been pretty lackluster. After Forrest Gump, he collaborated with Tom Hanks on this film and The Polar Express. In Cast Away, you can see Zemeckis’s continued fascination with digital effects, but he hasn’t been so taken with motion capture yet. This is one of those films that has permeated pop culture with references to Wilson the Volleyball being a fairly ubiquitous sight gag since. I’d never seen Cast Away and thought if I was flashing back to 2000, I had to watch it.
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is a system analyst for FedEx who is obsessed with time, mostly not wasting it. We meet him as he lectures a newly opened Moscow branch about the necessity of not losing a second. After returning home to Memphis, we see Chuck spending Christmas with his partner Kelly (Helen Hunt) but rushing off again when paged by the company to resolve a problem in Malaysia. The plane attempts to go around a massive storm over the ocean but ends up crashing. Chuck uses a life raft to survive and wakes up sometime later, washed onto the shore of a deserted island.
This begins Chuck’s new life stranded in this lonely place. Zemeckis lets Chuck struggle with survival and never really delivers a moment that supersedes reality. Our protagonist has his body put through the wringer. He struggles to find food and settles into a coconut diet. Freshwater is a complicated process. Spearing fish takes an indeterminate but very long time to master. Making fire is an even more difficult task. Throughout it all, Tom Hanks is asked to bear the full weight of the film. He does a very fine of wordlessly taking the audience through the emotions of being so isolated, losing track of time, and fighting to survive.
I was thinking about ways another director might have taken the story in a cliche direction. I could see them thinking there needed to be a material antagonist and framing some island predator to represent Chuck’s struggle. That would have taken the film into predictable territory. It shows the sort of clout Zemeckis had that he could make such a quiet movie without a villain. It’s just a man alone trying to survive. It’s not until the third act we learn that Chuck attempted suicide while he was on the island. Zemeckis doesn’t give us a story that tries to wrap things up quickly. Life back on the mainland is tough for Chuck for a multitude of reasons.
Thematically, Cast Away is relatively simple. We get Chuck’s problem spelled out for us in the first few minutes. He is letting life rush past him because of his dedication to his job. Because he allows his career to override his time with those he loves, he hasn’t really learned to appreciate the moment. Chuck is focused on what is coming up. When he’s on the island, he’s forced to stop and be in each moment, learning to appreciate it more fully. This isn’t a very revolutionary theme in cinema, but Zemeckis delivers it with a skilled hand. He does employ digital effects but never in a way that overtakes the storytelling and character arc.
The movie’s best parts end up being the large middle section with Chuck alone on the island. When he returns to the mainland, the story meanders into fairly stock plotting. I don’t think other characters in the story are as well written, and Hanks is so good in the role he basically overshadows everyone else anyway. After a misstep with Death Becomes Her, Zemeckis was settling into a comfortable Oscar-baiting phase in his career. Films like this and Cast Away were great for career prestige, but I felt like he drifted away from engaging, funny characters that we see in his earlier work.
Cast Away is an interesting movie that doesn’t present a traditional story. There are long moments of silence where Hanks works through the process of doing things. This is no European film though, Zemeckis cannot help but delve into some Spielbergian schmaltz by the end. I think a movie that didn’t let Chuck leave the island would have been more interesting. A film that goes to a more profound place with these same themes is the Dutch animated film The Red Turtle. If you like the island isolation part of this story, The Red Turtle goes farther with it and doesn’t play so simply with these themes.