Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Because of its simplicity, performance and the relative restraint on the part of director Robert Zemeckis, Cast Away is a remarkable film. It tells the story of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a FedEx worker who finds himself stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, for over four years. The best part of the film is the 75 or so minutes we spend alone with Chuck, as isolated as he is. My only meek complaint with the film is that there are then 58 melodramatic minutes on either side of the shipwreck in which we’re strongly encouraged to feel what the film wants us to feel, rather than to find it ourselves.
I love a good ‘process’ movie, and Cast Away certainly is one. Once Chuck finds himself alone, he has nothing to do but silently try to survive. This means we play the game with him, deciphering his surroundings and thinking of how we might use what little he has to forge shelter and the like. It’s pure cinema, to use that term, because there is so little dialogue. Instead we just observe, finding meaning in simple images and the way they are juxtaposed together.
I’m a sucker for a good slow burn, especially one told over a lot of elapsed time. This means I’m going to love this movie, at least the slow burn-y sections of it. And that island section is about as good as I think it could possibly be. Chuck experiences all sorts of grief before settling into hardened shell of himself, some sort of mountain man.
We see him at arguably his lowest point, having used a blade to dislodge a rotten tooth from his mouth, and then we calmly fade to the title “FOUR YEARS LATER” where we pick up with Chuck, gaunt and bearded, having expertly speared a fish from a dozen meters away. When the camera pans up to try and recognize our hero, he just stands there like a statue. All the information is conveyed in this single image, and it’s a bit devastating (particularly since production was halted for a year so Hanks could grow the beard and lose the weight).
This island section of the film is beautiful from an aesthetic standpoint and for the most part is extremely calm, settling for the diegetic sounds of waves and wind rather than a heavy orchestral score. This isn’t always the case, especially before and after we’re on the island, but when the film shows more of this restraint I think it works that much better. We are forced to become as acquainted with the sounds of the island as Chuck is himself. Every sound must resonate as if it is itself a musical note. This is especially true of the coconuts which, at first implied to be a sign of danger, soon lead to Chuck discovering his first source of nutrition on the island. In this sense it is a form of wild baptism. Or maybe it’s the dislodging of his tooth which is meant to fill that metaphorical void. Or maybe it’s the offscreen suicide attempt.
Either way the journey is earned once we see Chuck as a calm, melancholic but perhaps slightly enlightened figure four years later. He has learned to coexist with the island, becoming just another species in that environment, the apex predator.
But then there’s that schmaltzy prologue and epilogue, and gosh I think it goes on far too long. It is the Lifetime Movie-ication of a movie that desperately doesn’t need it. In these sequences we meet Chuck as a character, see how hard of a worker he is, and most of all we meet his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt). She is an underutilized character who is really forced into an archetype so that we might latch onto their romance before it is taken away. It is then her image, in a small pocket watch, which Chuck clings to for the duration of his island getaway.
I can’t really figure out why this is all there, other than to make this more mainstream. The selling point of Tom Hanks acting alone on an island should be enough, it seems, to attract an audience, and as a storytelling function, this prologue and epilogue didn’t add very much to the story.
How I see things, Chuck’s story is no less gripping if he’s a jerk or just an unknown. It didn’t matter that he was in love or a workaholic, once he was on the island none of that mattered. And to have the emotional payoff of Chuck re-meeting Kelly after he’s rescued, well we could’ve had that even without the epilogue. It’s fine to have her represent all the things he has lost or missed out on, but Kelly should either become more prominent as a character, which seems difficult in a story such as this, or written out of the beginning.
Maybe I’m wrong, I often am, but I imagine that if the movie just started with the plane crash that strands Chuck on the island, the emotional payoff of him reuniting with Kelly, whom we would then only recognize from his pocket watch, would work just as well. We become so used to her singular image that no matter how she has changed in the end will be substantial. It’s just the acknowledgement that she’s changed at all, which is inevitable.
This prologue and epilogue is lathered in emotional music meant to coerce you into feeling for these doomed lovebirds, as if this is some old Hollywood romantic drama. Hanks and Hunt might as well be Bogart and Bacall, two icons whom we are desperate to see find their way back to each other.
But this is just a survival movie, and that melodrama only dulls the edges of what is an otherwise captivating, insular, existential film.
Up Next: Greta (2018), Apollo 11 (2019), Apollo 13 (1995)