Cast Away (2000): Zemeckis Great Film Starring Tom Hanks in Top Form

Tremendous risks, both dramatic and commercial, are taken, and for the most part met, by director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks in the boldly unique Cast Away, the closest American movies, usually known for their visual energy and narrative drive, have come to an epic film based on a single character.

Hanks, who’s also a producer, plays an ambitious FedEx system engineer whose life, previously ruled by the precision of a Swiss clock, is utterly shattered when his plane crashes, leaving him all alone in a remote island.

A top-notch Hanks, whose bravura performance holds the entire picture on his shoulders, a meticulous and sumptuous production, and striking visuals compensate for the lack of dramatic momentum in a film that arguably stretches narrativity to its limits. Strong critical support should help Fox release position this adventure saga as an “event movie” in the U.S. and overseas. PG-13 rating is a major plus for young viewers, who’ll relate to 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 former Zemeckis-Hanks teaming, as it’s also structured as a personal journey of an Everyman. However, whereas that 1994 Oscar-winner spanned decades and numerous locales, with its hero being the only constant, this epic is confined to one setting and time frame, depicting in detail the moral odyssey of one man. If Forrest Gump was about an extraordinary man–a simpleton with low I.Q.–in ordinary circumstances, Cast Away is about an ordinary guy forced to become extraordinary as a result of a fiercely intense ordeal.

Narrative is divided into four asymmetrical parts. Set in 1995, first segment establishes Chuck’s manic existence as it defines his personal and professional lives. Chuck’s fast-paced career takes him, often at a moment’s notice, to far-flung cities such as Moscow, away from his loving g.f. Kelly (a splendidly understated Helen Hunt), who’s about to complete her Ph.D.

Returning home on a FedEx plane, he cant’ wait for spending Christmas Eve with Kelly. However, a mechanical problem leads to a terrifyingly violent plane crash filmed in a never-before seen gritty realism. Cast away to the most desolate environment imaginable, Chuck is forced to deal with the most basic biological needs. Film plays well the irony of a career-driven–the consummate problem-solver–suddenly faced with the most urgent problem: Sheer survival.

Cut to four years later, during which we are led to believe that Chuck has come to terms with the elements. Tale now finds him trim and muscular, sporting long blond hair and a bushy beard and stripped to a Tarzan-like outfit. Pic serves as a demonstration of psychologist Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs: Once Chuck figures out the basic ingredients for survival–food, water, shelter, and fire–he begins dealing with the fifth element, sociability or companionship.

Though Kelly’s memory is essential to Chuck’s survival, a crucial phase in his transformation rests on an unusual friendship with “Wilson,” a volleyball washed ashore inside a FedEx package from the doomed flight. Playing a key part, “Wilson” rescues Chuck from solitude as well as mental depression. This fellowship is also used as a device, allowing Chuck to speak, as first hour is totally silent.

Driven forward by the potency and needs of its central heroic personality, 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’re no cuts to society’s or Kelly’s reaction to Chuck’s disaster.

Chuck’s daring escape is carried out through a dangerous reef that previously acted as the “bars” for his island prison. Fate gives Chuck a chance to fight his way back to civilization, only to face an unexpected emotional challenge that, in many ways, is more demanding that the physical one. Refreshingly, though there’s closure, the last segment also deviates from a conventional Hollywood ending.

Scripter William Broyles does a skillful dramatization where events and emotions are brought to life with sparse dialogue and no music; first melodic sound is heard 90 mins into the story. Building on a minimal script, based on journals of shipwrecked victims, Zemeckis gives the film a visual heart; depicting the efforts to get water, make a knife out of stone, crack a coconut in one of the film’s most humorous scenes.

The picture 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.

The film revolves around a key question: Once you have learned to survive physically, how do you survive emotionally and spiritually It’s also question posed to the viewers: What if you were the survivor Chuck decides not to open one FedEx parcel 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.

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 really matters. This issue comes into focus in the last reel, which is brilliantly staged. Helmer shows again his mastery of mise-en-scene: Chuck’s return to civilization is so well-staged that it almost makes up for the unexciting spots at the center.

It’s impossible to imagine this film without the captivating performance of Hanks, who here reaches another height in an already glorious career. Filmed in sequential order, Cast Away may be the only pic shot in two parts over 16 months, with a one-year hiatus within that time to allow for Hanks’ physical transformation.

Don Burgess’s unglamorous lensing contributes to saga’s modulated look, with the Russian sequences (a glimpse of the Red Sqaure) shot with a restlessly mobile camera to convey Chuck’s frantic pace. In contrast, the island and its rugged, distinctive geography are shot in a static manner to depict Chuck’s quiet desperation.

Propagating faith, hope and redemption, Cast Away is a most fitting family film for the upcoming holiday season.