Director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks take tremendous risks — both dramatic and commercial — and for the most part succeed, in “Cast Away.” In this bold and unique story about a single character stranded on an island, a top-notch Hanks holds the picture on his shoulders with a bravura perf. Meticulous, sumptuous production design, and striking visuals compensate for the lack of dramatic momentum in a film that arguably stretches narrative form to its limits. Strong critical support should help position this adventure saga as an “event movie” both in the U.S. (where Fox is distribbing) and overseas (where DreamWorks will release it). The PG-13 rating is a major plus; young viewers will relate to the story as a contempo Robinson Crusoe, while the philosophical elements are likely to appeal to more mature auds.
“Cast Away” bears thematic resemblance to “Forrest Gump,” the earlier Zemeckis-Hanks teaming, in its focus on the personal journey of an Everyman. But the 1994 Oscar winner spanned decades and numerous locales, with its hero the only constant; however, the bulk of the new pic is confined to one setting and a much tighter time frame, depicting in detail the moral odyssey of one man.
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Hanks, who serves as a producer, plays an ambitious FedEx system engineer whose life, run with the precision of a Swiss watch, is shattered when his plane crashes, leaving him alone on a remote island.
The narrative is divided into four asymmetrical parts. Set in 1995, the first segment establishes Chuck’s manic personal and professional lives. His fast-paced career takes him, often on a moment’s notice, to far-flung cities such as Moscow, away from his loving g.f., Kelly (a splendidly understated Helen Hunt). Returning home on a FedEx plane, Chuck can’t wait to spend Christmas Eve with Kelly. But a mechanical problem on the plane causes a terrifying crash, filmed with unprecedented, gritty realism. In the second segment, Chuck is forced to deal with the most basic biological needs. Film plays up well the irony of a career-driven man, used to solving problems, faced with the most urgent problem of all: sheer survival.
Cut to four years later. Tale now finds Chuck trim and muscular, sporting long blond hair and a bushy beard and stripped to a Tarzan-like outfit. Having mastered the four basic needs — food, water, shelter and fire — he begins to deal with his need for companionship.
While his memories of Kelly are essential to Chuck’s survival, he also establishes an unusual relationship with “Wilson,” a volleyball washed ashore inside a FedEx package from the doomed flight. Playing a crucial role, Wilson rescues Chuck from solitude as well as depression. This fellowship also allows Chuck to speak — after an hour’s worth of mostly silence.
Driven forward by the strength and struggles of its hero, “Cast Away” takes admirable risks while avoiding pitfalls. Story stays close to the ground, literally, maintaining a coherent p.o.v., with Chuck the center of attention; there are no cuts to society’s or Kelly’s reaction to Chuck’s disaster.
Fate gives Chuck a chance to fight his way back to civilization in a daring escape, only to face an unexpected emotional challenge that, in many ways, is more demanding than the physical ones he survived. Though there’s closure, the last segment deviates refreshingly from a conventional Hollywood ending.
Building a script, based on journals of shipwreck victims, William Broyles Jr. creates a skillful work in which events and emotions are brought to life with sparse dialogue and little music; the first melodic sound is heard 90 minutes into the story.
Pic is replete with ironies and subtle humor. As a FedEx exec, Chuck is dedicated to connecting people all over the world, but the yarn throws him into a situation in which he is disconnected from everything. Moreover, the island’s pristine beauty and serenity stand in contrast to Chuck’s civilized life. The irony is that for most people the Fiji islands rep tropical paradise, whereas for Chuck they become a prison.
And Zemeckis gives the film heart, depicting Chuck’s efforts to get water, make a knife out of stone, and (in one of the film’s most humorous scenes) crack a coconut.
The film revolves around a key question: Once you have learned to survive physically, how do you survive emotionally and spiritually? While Chuck opens the FedEx packages that have washed ashore, he decides not to open one that’s adorned with angel wings, which becomes a symbol of hope — one he holds onto even after his return.
More problematic is the suggestion that if Chuck hadn’t lost everything, he would never have come to understand what’s truly important. It’s here that the film gets excessively academic and metaphysical. Ultimately, “Cast Away” is about realizing the true meaning of belonging, of finding home, casting away the clutter that complicates life in an effort to rediscover what matters.
This issue comes into focus in the last reel. The helmer shows again his mastery of mise-en-scene: Chuck’s return to civilization is so brilliantly staged that it almost makes up for the unexciting spots at the center.
It’s hard to imagine this film without the captivating perf of Hanks, who reaches another height in an already impressive career. Filmed in sequential order, “Cast Away” may be the only pic shot in two parts over 16 months, with a one-year hiatus to allow for Hanks’ physical transformation.
Don Burgess’ unglamorous lensing contributes to the saga’s modulated look, with the Russian sequences (a glimpse of Red Square) shot with a restlessly mobile camera to convey Chuck’s frantic pace. In contrast, the island and its rugged, distinctive geography is shot in a static manner to depict Chuck’s quiet desperation.