Director Robert Zemeckis infuriated audiences and critics alike this past summer when he 'gave away' the major plot points in the trailers for his supernatural thriller "What Lies Beneath", sapping what little suspense the film had. In his defense, Zemeckis claimed that he was only catering to the needs of modern moviegoers, who apparently want to know 'exactly everything that they are going to see before they go see the movie'. He compared the marketing of movies to the standardized offerings at McDonalds-- the reason for McDonalds' success in the global fast food business was because customers know exactly what they'll be getting, with no surprises.
Well, not surprisingly, Zemeckis latest effort, "Cast Away", is raising a similar ruckus due to the trailers giving away the ending yet again, spilling the beans on the outcome of Tom Hank's marooned character. For those of you who have not seen the trailer and do not wish to ruin the suspense, you are best to stop reading here and jump to the last paragraph of this review.
For everyone else, let me just say that such a move would have been justified had the emphasis of the script been on its protagonist's return and reintegration into society. Unfortunately, the film's fourth act drops the ball on the dramatic and thematic possibilities with respect to this outcome, and so the trailer ends up misplacing its emphasis on where the actual suspense resides. But despite Zemeckis marketing miscalculation and some missed opportunities in the final act, "Cast Away" is still a solid effort, worthy of consideration as one of the year's top films. This is due in part to a thought-provoking script, as well as a performance that is certain to give Hanks a strong opportunity for his third Best Actor Oscar.
The story begins in 1995. Chuck Noland (Hanks) is an extremely dedicated FedEx employee who flies around the world to help the company's branch offices improve their operations and solve their problems. Chuck is a man who lives by the clock, as nothing is more important than getting his customers' package to their destination on time-- he tells his employees that time is a relentless enemy that they should never turn their backs on. Unfortunately, with such a globetrotting and career-focused lifestyle, Chuck barely has time to spend with his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt, seen recently in "What Women Want").
Thus, it is no surprise that on Christmas Eve, after returning from assignment in Moscow, Chuck is paged during Christmas dinner with Kelly's folks-- there's a critical situation in Malaysia and he's the only one that can deal with it. Thus, Chuck hops aboard a Pacific-bound FedEx jet, with the promise to celebrate New Year's Eve with Kelly, uttering the phrase that is synonymous with tragedy in the teen horror genre, "I'll be right back."
Unfortunately, the plane is diverted off-course, and then downed, by a fierce tropical storm, in a terrifying crash sequence that should make anyone think twice about flying. By sheer luck, Chuck is able to escape the sinking wreckage of the plane, and he washes ashore on a deserted island, the only survivor. With no one around, no shelter, no food, and no obvious signs of an imminent rescue, Chuck must do whatever he can to survive, clinging to the hope of being reunited with the love of his life, Kelly.
In addition to filling up most of the two-and-a-half hour running time, Chuck's "Robinson Crusoe" ordeal on the island also provides most of the film's drama and suspense, as we watch a man whose life was ruled by the clock finding himself alone, without any demands on his time, or any of the modern tools he took for granted. At first, this bleak atmosphere is eased a bit as Chuck remains the ever-dutiful FedEx employee, carefully collecting and sorting the packages that wash ashore in the days following the crash.
However, as his hopes for a swift rescue dim with each passing day, his efforts then turn to survival needs-- water, food, and shelter. Unfortunately, these tasks, which are usually considered mundane in a modern civilized society, are almost impossible in Chuck's circumstances. Learning how to crack open coconuts, finding additional sources of food, finding a dry place to sleep, and building a fire become significant milestones in Chuck's survival. At the same time, the interminable loneliness begins to take its toll on Chuck's sanity. To break the monotony, he creates a companion named 'Wilson' from a volleyball that washes up from the crash. Over the next four years he spends as a castaway, it is his desire to be reunited with Kelly that is the driving force for Chuck to survive and find a way off the island.
It is in this part of the film that Hanks versatility as an actor is showcased. With no other actors in his scenes, Hanks must carry over an hour of screen-time by himself with the minimal use of dialogue. Hanks' work here exceeds that of his previous Oscar-winning performances ("Philadelphia" and his other collaboration with Zemeckis, "Forrest Gump"), and that's not even taking into consideration the fact that production was halted for nine months while Hanks underwent significant weight loss to reflect the toll from four years of island living. It wouldn't be a surprise to have Hanks nominated for yet another Best Actor Oscar.
As revealed in the film's trailer, Chuck does eventually make it back to civilization, though his struggle to achieve that end remains gripping, both on an emotional and visceral level, despite knowledge of that eventuality. Unfortunately, the epilogue to Chuck's island adventure is the film's only disappointment. The film's title hints at the thematic possibilities of the story, with the more literal interpretation being a narrative about a man's existence as a castaway on an island.
However, the title can also be viewed as referring to the exploration of what happens to that man when he tries to pick up the pieces of his life after a long absence-- he finds himself 'cast away' by society, as time has relentlessly marched on without him. How would Chuck interact with his friends and family, who have long considered him dead and buried? Would there still be a career for him, let alone a job to do? It would not be dissimilar to the type of alienation that some Baby Boomers, the target audience of Zemeckis' films, might feel, especially in a day and age where massive technological and social change have made 'old economy' values and skills obsolete.
Though the film does try to address such issues, they aren't explored to any depth (if they were, it would probably make FedEx look bad), and in the end, the other interpretation of the film's title ends up being a missed opportunity. The inevitable reunion between Chuck and Kelly is more of a melodramatic footnote to tie up some loose ends, which is followed by an emotionally-flat ending that leaves Chuck standing at a crossroads in a forced happy ending.
However, one unexpected outcome of the epilogue is an interesting revelation that touches on matters of existence in asking the question, 'Why bother?' Is the point of carrying on, despite all adversity, based on some tangible endpoint that may never be accomplished, or is it merely belief in that tangible endpoint that makes all the difference? Why have people throughout history become involved in immense undertakings that may never succeed, or that they may not live to see at completion? If the endpoint is never realized, does that negate the struggle and time invested in pursuing it? Thought-provoking questions indeed.
In terms of supporting performances, there are very few to speak of. Other than a painted volleyball, the only other actor with a pivotal role and significant screen-time is Helen Hunt, who seems to be in almost every other movie released in the past few months. Though her appearances are essentially bookends to the story, she is able to infuse credibility and warmth into the Chuck-Kelly relationship, which provides a firm foundation for the poignancy of Chuck's plight. Nick Searcy (from TV's "Seven Days") also makes an appearance as Chuck's coworker, and he acquits himself nicely in his limited role.
Despite a disappointing and muted resolution, as well as a trailer that basically tells the entire story, "Cast Away" remains an impressive achievement, particularly for Hanks, whose heartfelt and believable portrayal of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe deserves an instant Oscar nomination. Even if you have been jaded by all the undeserved hoopla over TV's "Survivor", you will find "Cast Away" to be a thought-provoking and compelling drama. And you may even think twice about flying over the ocean in the future-- at least not without a pocketknife, a flashlight, and a lighter.