'Cast Away' Hanks lives four years on an uncharted tropical isle in splashy, feel-good survival flick
With director Robert Zemeckis at the helm and Tom Hanks atop the marquee, no matter how imaginative a movie might be on paper, it's going to come off feeling like pure Hollywood.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. "Forrest Gump" was quite a novel premise and a good enough movie. But it was a cheaply manipulative movie with such superficial charm that now it's best remembered for spawning pop culture catch phrases and Bubba Gump theme restaurants.
The same sort of contrived ambiance wafts on the winds of "Cast Away," the pair's splashy but accomplished Robinson Crusoe yarn about an obsessive international troubleshooter for Federal Express (Hanks) marooned on an uncharted tropical atoll after surviving the film's spectacularly staged plane crash.
But while its narrative feels somewhat bridled by convention and predictability, the picture still pulls the audience in with sure-footed storytelling and a commendable performance by Hanks in a very demanding role.
After a prologue establishing his devotion to his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) and overriding dedication to his job (he leaves the girl on Christmas Eve to hop a plane overseas for some kind of freight crisis), Hanks is the only actor on the screen for 120 of the movie's (excessively lengthy) 150 minutes. His plane goes down during a storm and, clutching the heirloom pocket watch Hunt gave him before he boarded, Hanks manages to escape the sinking fuselage in an inflatable raft and wash ashore on the isolated isle.
He stands little chance of rescue since the plane was 200 miles off course trying to fly around the weather, and his early days on the island are a potent interlude of speechless disbelief, grief and overwhelming frustration as Hanks endures injuries and hardships that force him to hone his survival skills.
The second act of the film then centers on his determination to persevere. He plucks undelivered FedEx packages from the debris that washes to his small shore and makes use of whatever he finds within: Tulle torn from a dress becomes a fishing net, ice skates become an axe for chopping trees and cracking coconuts. A volleyball gets a face painted on it as a transparent device to permit dialogue so Zemeckis and Hanks don't have to work so hard at conveying emotion, frustration and hopes of rescue.
When the words "four years later" flash on the screen, he's a startling site to see: Gaunt and scruffy (he lost 40 pounds to film these later scenes and sports long, sun-bleached hair and a tangled beard). He's learned to spear his seafood dinners like a native islander in a National Geographic special and to gauge the passage of months by the position of the sun.
The minutiae of Hanks' isolated life does hold a substantial fascination, even though "Cast Away" doesn't effectively transport the viewer from the relative luxury of his or her multiplex seat. There's never a question of how he'll make it or even if he'll ever get back to civilization. (I have some qualms with the particulars of the last act, but I don't want to spoil anything.)
Zemeckis does a resourceful job with the cinematic particulars of the film, creating a traumatic crash scene in the early going (shot entirely from within the plane) and exploring the physical landscape of the island and emotional landscape of his star. Hanks is persuasive and sometimes amusingly outlandish in portraying his character's interaction with his ongoing, life-altering turmoil and the deliberate measures he takes stave off loneliness and insanity (talking to the volleyball gets inane at times).
I have many issues with the pre-rigged machination of "Cast Away" -- the hackneyed concept of the single symbolic package he saves to deliver if he ever gets home, the overbearingly poignant soundtrack -- most of them leading me to wonder how the picture might have been better with a less pedestrian director at the helm.
Nonetheless, it's a gratifying and well-executed film with a well-rounded story arc. Even though it's too much of a feel-good flick to be a sincere drama about survival, I must admit I enjoyed it.