Cast Away
review by Joe Barlow, 29 December 2000

Thank the merciful saints of movie-going for Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks.  Virtually every critic in America, including yours truly, has bemoaned the dearth of quality films in the year 2000, yet just as things are at their bleakest, along comes Cast Away, an emotional tour-de-force all but guaranteed to sweep the 2001 Oscars.  A disaster movie hasn't been this marketable--or as well-crafted--since Titanic, and no, that's not intended as a backhanded complement.  Cast Away is a powerful piece of narrative storytelling, anchored by one of Hanks's best performances, and the sheer depth of the story will make it an experience the viewer will remember for a long time to come.

Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a Federal Express executive who specializes in finding ways to shave minutes off a package's delivery time.  Although his life is dominated by his career, Noland maintains a warm, loving relationship with his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), and plans to propose to her at an upcoming New Year's Eve party.  When a last-minute Christmas rush threatens to delay the delivery of some Fed-Ex packages, Noland boards a plane to go help out his co-workers.  En route, the aircraft encounters a severe winter storm and crashes into the Pacific Ocean.  Noland, the sole survivor, washes up on a tropical island and spends the next four years trying to fashion a return to civilization while insanity eats away at him.

Hanks's performance is so inspired that no words I can write could possibly do it justice.  The emotional range Hanks conveys has to be seen to be believed, and his physical transformations are no less remarkable -- filming was actually suspended for a year so that Noland's aging would appear more believable -- resulting in one of the most consistent performances of Hanks's already remarkable career.  We share firsthand in both his triumphs and his heartbreaks, and witness how his unwavering love for Kelly becomes a source of inspiration during his exile.

Desperate for company, Noland creates a friend for himself by painting a smiley face on a volleyball found in one of the water-soaked boxes near the crash site.  Christening his new buddy "Wilson," after the ball's manufacturer, Noland uses the ball as a sounding board for his loneliness and frustrations.  Whatís amazing is the skill and sincerity with which Hanks conveys the growing "friendship" between the pair.  Amusing and frightening at the same time, these scenes reveal the sheer scope of Noland's longing for companionship far better than any amount of cloying voice-over narration.  By seeing how important Wilson is to Noland, we begin to share his affection for the grinning volleyball.  If youíre not touched by the final fate of Nolandís silent companion, youíre made of sterner stuff than I.

Robert Zemeckis, who last worked with Hanks in 1995's Forrest Gump, clearly knows how to squeeze the maximum amount of drama from a story; as a result, even though Cast Away is a tremendous viewing experience by any standard, it will prove especially interesting for those viewers interested in the craft of filmmaking.  Zemeckis adopts a minimalist approach for much of the story, abandoning a conventional orchestral score in favor of a far more haunting alternative: utter silence.  This was an excellent -- and brave -- choice on the part of the director, and it truly allows the audience to share Noland's sense of isolation.  Also witness how, with a confidence bordering on bravado, Zemeckis orchestrates the movie's showpiece scene -- the plane crash -- into something that manages to horrify while simultaneously retaining a cold, stark beauty.

It's intriguing to note that the movie's title is alternately being given as Castaway and Cast Away in the various advertisements I've seen, a clever promotional ploy that lends a double meaning to the tale and also serves as clever (and subtle) foreshadowing for the story's third act.  Cast Away is not really about Chuck Noland's adventures on the deserted island so much as it's about the repercussions of his time there.  The film's lengthy post-island epilogue sets up a new series of obstacles with which poor Chuck has to deal.  The movie's final shot is some kind of masterpiece, depicting a confused and sullen Chuck Noland standing at both a physical and metaphorical crossroads.  It's perhaps the most striking visual symbol I've seen in any film this year.

Cast Away is both triumphant and heart-wrenching, and it touched me like few other cinematic works.  While it would be an exaggeration to say that I came out of the theater a changed person, the story left me with more to think about than any other movie in recent memory, and continues to haunt me as I write these words.  You know a film has affected you on a profoundly personal level when your first actions after seeing it are to run home as fast as you can, throw your arms around your loved ones, and remind them how much they mean to you.  Cast Away has the power to remind you of what's truly important in life, and for that reason alone it's the best holiday gift you'll ever receive.

Directed by:
Robert Zemeckis

Starring:
Tom Hanks
Helen Hunt
Christopher Noth
Nick Scarcy

Written by:
William Broyles Jr.

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