Released December 22, 2000:
Strand Tom Hanks on a desert island for years? Sounds too good to be true to many a disgruntled movie goer. Such is the state in Cast Away, Robert Zemeckis’ existential meditation on man, nature, FedEx and their product placement checks, and of course… volleyballs.
Hanks is yet another everyman, except he’s a real stickler for time and order as a FedEx supervisor. His girlfriend (Helen Hunt) is pushing for marriage but hey – they’ve got all the time in the world, right? So Tom boards a FedEx flight headed for the South Pacific that hits a nasty collision with a powerful storm. The plane goes down abruptly in what is likely the most terrifying plane crash ever performed on film. Hanks washes ashore onto a mysterious deserted island after drifting alone in the vast ocean. Without civilization and without human contact he must start all over just to survive the day. So becomes the odyssey of Island Tom.
Cast Away hits one out of the park with its near dialogue free middle act with Tom’s first days upon his new island home. Hanks struggles to do everyday things from finding food to creating a makeshift shelter. As Hanks goes through these daily troubles the audience is with him every moment and learns as he does. Cast Away‘s middle is fascinating to watch. After a few days some packages from the crash wash ashore including a volleyball that Tom turns into his best friend. “Wilson” is Hanks’ companion and is totally understandable how one would branch out for contact under the circumstances. Plus, Wilson’s a dynamite celebrity of his own right now.
Hanks’ acting is his usually above average output, but his whole role seems more like a showcase for his method acting than the acting itself. The first half of Cast Away was shot then they took a year off so Hanks could become scruffy, thin Caveman/Unibomber Hanks. The transition is fun to watch and remarkable for an actor to devote himself completely to their role. But the part itself, and Hanks’ show, seem more spectacle than substance. Helen Hunt pops up in the beginning and end proving that she can somehow manage to be in every film in December. Pretty much the next actor in the film would be… well, a volleyball. Cast Away is basically a one-man show.
Despite a wonderful middle Cast Away is suffering from the opposite syndrome of Saving Private Ryan: strong middle, weaker beginning and end sandwiching it. Our opening plays like an extended commercial for FedEx, complete with the dazzling FedEx package POV cam (coming soon!). The end plays like a thank you card to FedEx. The ending also suffers from extreme let-down from multiple climaxes that don’t end the film but just give way to another climax. By the time the movie does end you’re exhausted.
Zemeckis lends a skilled hand toward the direction, the script plays to the strengths of the tale good enough, and Cast Away has its moments but becomes too heavy-handed at certain periods. Still, the volleyball is good. Go for the volleyball.
Nate’s Grade: B
(For fun, count the amount of times FedEx is mentioned or seen in the film. Hell, do it with this review too. I’ll even help you out – FedEx, FedEX, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx, FedEx. Oh fun.)
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Twenty years later, Cast Away feels almost like finding a message in a bottle of another time, a time when director Robert Zemeckis was routinely making great movies, and when Tom Hanks ruled the box office and awards circuit (he has only been nominated for one Oscar since Cast Away, in 2019 for playing Fred Rogers). It’s also a movie that reminds you that despite all else that concept is king. It’s an especially easy movie to watch, and its middle portion is so beautifully clear and accessible that any group of people could keep up and find the island plot thrilling and fascinating. There are long, long portions where the only dialogue spoken in the movie is between one very harried man and a volleyball he has adopted as his only friend. Cast Away is in many ways a textbook example of elegant visual storytelling and also an example of the limitations of emotional engagement when there’s not much else going on but survival.
Please don’t get me wrong, I was mesmerized during the island portion of this movie, which makes about 80 minutes of an otherwise overly long 140-minute movie. When it’s Chuck Noland (Hanks) stranded on a deserted island and having to think step-by-step for shelter, food, and basic care, I was hooked. I was thinking each step of the way, learning and applying that new knowledge base with the main character, and it’s just an imminently enjoyable formula to witness a character work through problems and triumph under extreme circumstances. I felt the same thing with 2015’s The Martian, which was dubbed “Cast Away on Mars.” It even goes back to arguably the first novel, Robinson Crusoe, following one man and his wits and will alone on a perilous island. Very often the protagonist in these man-versus-nature stories is a stand-in for all of us, representing humanity’s quest to conquer the elements and prove our collective mettle to the universe. There is an immensely satisfying pleasure watching storytelling that is precise, efficient, and clean, imparting the necessary information to build onto the next scene and for each setup to expand your understanding and trace to the next payoff. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13, Planet of the Apes) deserves more plaudits than he has been given. The island portion of Cast Away is beautiful and near brilliant. Each moment builds so naturally. You learn the geography of the island, the mini goals of cracking open a coconut, building a fire, turning the FedEx trinkets into valuable tools of adaptation, it all builds and at your own pace.
When we make that four-year time jump, Zemeckis definitely wants it to be a showstopper moment and it is earned. The camera slowly pans to linger on the image of Chuck, much more tan, gaunt, and with a beard that I wrote in 2000 could rival the Unibomber. It’s such a striking image coming right after an unexpected time jump. That’s Tom Hanks, one of the members of Hollywood royalty, and he looks so different from his earlier, schlubby everyman self. The sight is also a stark reminder of Hanks’ physical dedication to the role. He spent a year losing 50 pounds and growing out his scraggly beard. The entire film production went on hiatus and Zemeckis shot an entire other movie released in 2000 (the unremarkable What Lies Beneath). His performance is genuinely great and perhaps more deserving of the Oscar that year than eventual winner Russell Crowe for Gladiator. It’s a performance that is more than a Method physical transformation. His terror, elation, and worry are readily apparent onscreen. It’s a one-man show so you better not get complacent because the audience has nothing else to hold its attention than watching your face, your expressions, your tumult. Not everyone can share the screen with a volleyball and make you feel something when that ball drifts away.
It’s all the rest of Cast Away that can’t quite add up. The first act is mostly establishing Chuck as a figure fated for grand ironic punishment, a workaholic taskmaster who has all the time in the world and nothing more to do but sit with his thoughts. The first act establishes his Before life for our contrast, so we know what he will be leaving behind, and this only really works when the final act rolls around to offer the After period. Now we check in on these minor characters and what four years have done for their lives, how they mourned and moved on from Chuck, and how they’re handling his miraculous re-appearance. You could make an entire movie about a woman whose former love comes back years later after being presumed dead and how this shakes up her current relationship and her own mental sense of self and yearning. That’s a tremendous amount of internal struggle to sift through. Except, with Cast Away, Chuck has lost something but it doesn’t really feel like he’s lost much. Our only time spent with Kelly (Helen Hunt) is during the first act, and while he holds onto her memory and she ostensibly serves as a motivational force for him to get off the island, it’s not felt by the viewer. So when we learn she’s married and a mother, it doesn’t feel so tragic as it does mundane. Life carries on.
By then it’s too late to make Chuck a more substantially interesting character. The point of interest was watching his survival on the island. Back at home, he’s just another guy, and there isn’t enough from an emotional standpoint to make him compelling. It’s not about him trying to readjust to a society he was ripped away from, catching up on lost time, feeling like a man who was in a coma and now has to pick up everything he’s been asleep for. These characterization shortcomings don’t become more notable until after Chuck gets rescued. Beforehand, I was caught in the immediate physical danger and conflicts of survival, but once we’re off the island, we’re just left with some guy. He hasn’t gone through a radical internal synthesis through his time on the island. He’ll probably be fine and live a normal life. The movie literally leaves him at a crossroads and sets up a handy romantic consolation for him. Does the audience really care which road Chuck takes from here? I doubt it. Chuck stops being interesting when he is saved.
Cast Away really was the last even semi-great movie by Zemeckis. He spent the bulk of the 2000s making animated movies using state-of-the-art motion capture technology. He’s since retreated back to live-action after his mo-cap experiments became too costly for studios. Strangely, Zemeckis has taken to remaking documentaries into entirely unnecessary dramatic features (2015’s The Walk, 2018’s Welcome to Marwen). The passion and pure filmmaking chops that placed Zemeckis as one of the most exciting filmmakers in Hollywood seems to have dimmed. Watch 2016’s Allied and tell me you feel passion. It’s like his interests in the technical side of filmmaking have swallowed his drive and creative expression as a storyteller. With Cast Away, it’s a return to basics of pure visual storytelling and Zemeckis excels so strongly. It makes me mourn what could have been considering Zemeckis abandoned live-action filmmaking, his own lost decade chasing after animated movies that felt like 3-D theme park rides. This is a man responsible for two of my favorite movies of all time (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) so I’ll always have hope that I can see glimmers of the same artist that delighted me.
Looking back at my original review from 2000, I’m becoming more and more proud of my younger self and his ability to analyze and articulate his film criticism. It’s a little fun to read words I wrote twenty years ago about a movie and nod along and go, “Right on,” with the same agreement to this day. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say this was a shift in the complexity of my film reviews, but my major points still stand in 2020 as they did in 2000. Apparently, FedEx did not pay a dime for product placement, though the company reaped financial rewards for years after the exposure. They even made a Super Bowl ad in 2003 that provides a further epilogue where Chuck (Hanks again) finds out the one package he refused to open just had all these handy tools that could have saved him. Cast Away is still an invigorating movie today, even if that only amounts to 80 of its 140 minutes.
Re-View Grade: B+