Director : Robert Zemeckis
Year Of Release : 2000
Principal Cast : Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy, Jenifer Lewis, Chris Noth, Lari White, Vince Martin, Geoffrey Blake, Michael Forest, Jay Acovone.
Approx Running Time : 143 Minutes
Synopsis: A FedEx executive must transform himself physically and emotionally to survive a crash landing on a deserted island.
For a film with about as much product placement could possibly stand, Cast Away remains one of those “gee, I hope this never happens to me” cautionary tales about survival against all odds that only gets better with age. Distilled to its essentials, it’s Tom-Hanks-On-An-Island-For-Two-Hours and it doesn’t really deviate from that at all, save for bookending back to the world plotting that either sets up Hank’s eponymous FedEx employee, or bogs him down in overly weighty emotional histrionics. Hanks’ leading performance is the kind of thing the Academy Awards were designed for, and he did see himself nominiated for a Best Actor gong (didn’t win), but moreso than even Hanks work is the direction of still-in-live-action nuance by Robert Zemeckis.
Hanks plays FedEx rep Chuck Nolan, a man who, like his career, has a life to match – he’s due to marry the love of his life, Kelly (Helen Hunt), and continue travelling the world, but a plane crash over the ocean sees his life upended, as he ends up stranded on a deserted island with almost zero hope of rescue. Initially struggling just to make fire and keep warm, Nolan eventually uses the washed-up FedEx parcels and the land around him to build a lonely, isolated life, punctuated only by conversation with a deflated volleyball named Wilson, and with a master-plan to escape the island by building a raft on which to leap the impenetrable reefs surrounding his prison.
To my mind, Cast Away is literally the perfect Robert Zemeckis movie. Sure, it might lack the pop-culture appeal of Back To The Future or the technical wizardry of his later motion-capture work (ugh), Cast Away represents the zenith of all Zemeckis’ live-action fare to that point in that it brings character, humanity, astonishingly invisible visual effects (compared to Forrest Gump, et al) and a sense of grandeur to a story about a man stuck in one spot – perhaps the least likely of galvanising, emotionally torturous plots you’d envisage from a man who gave us Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film makes Chuck seem like such a personable everyman, giving us a glimpse into both his working and personal lives, particularly that one seems to disadvantage the other more often than not, so that when tragedy strikes him and he’s…well, cast away, the impact of this hits a lot harder.
The film’s primary motive for existence is to give Hanks a reason to act to nobody; Cast Away is a masterclass in monologue and monotony, of solitude and soliloquy that drives along courtesy of time (the film has a four year narrative) and the desperation of escape. Hanks’ emotional bonding with an inanimate object, the volleyball Wilson, is among pop-culture’s most identifiable post-millennial moments, as is his heartbreaking reaction to Wilson’s “escape” over the side of Nolan’s raft later in the film. That Hanks can make the near two-hours of film time he spends on the island work so well, drawing humanity from it, and not looking like a total lunatic when conversing with Wilson, is testament to his acumen as an actor, and Zemeckis’ ability to draw the story out of the performance.
The other element I think which makes this work so well (and part of the reason I suspect Hanks snagged an Oscar nomination) was the physical transformation undergone for the part. Hanks starts the film a relatively chubby, paunchy type, before we are treated to the skeletal vision of Nolan post-“Three Years Later” when he’s been on the island all that time. The filming of Cast Away was halted for a year in order for Hanks to slim down to portray the long-stranded Nolan (Zemeckis went off and shot a whole other film, What Lies Beneath in the interval) and the strength of this decision is borne out in the audible gasps of people watching this for the first time. I remember the audience in the cinema when I saw it literally sucked breath as one when Hanks appeared, , hirsute, bedraggled and wiry, and it’s this kind of artistic craftsmanship that makes Cast Away so powerful a movie.
One of the true pleasures of Cast Away is its astonishing sound design. It’s something I’ve only come to realise after initially seeing it, but this film has one of the most pitch-perfect sound mixes in modern cinema. Not in terms of bombast or audacity (although the film’s key plane crash moment remains one of the best yet depicted on the big screen for sheer ferocity) but in terms of naturalness and ambience. This surround mix is one hell of a great listen – from whispering breezes blowing island palms in the background to the creak and groan of sundered fuselage of a dying aircraft, to the lull of waves crashing on a distant shore, Cast Away’s sonic work is unparalleled for its immediacy and its effectiveness. It remains my favourite quality audio mix of any film since its release, and one I go to to explain to people just how good a sound mix ought to be when it’s not transforming robots or cacophonous gunfire.
Of course, this would all be for nought were the direction by Zemeckis not so attuned to the scenario. Everything from camera placement, framing, gradual pans and reveals through movement is absolutely perfect, as complementary to Hanks’ central performance as you’re ever going to see. Every shot selection, ever edit, every “cool” camera trick (Zemeckis would overdo things in What Lies Beneath, but here he’s damn near perfect) is masterful, a resolute, solidified effort that never feels extravagant when anyone else might seem as much. Sure, the film does run aground on its own supply late in the piece – an extended denouement with Kelly once Chuck finds his way back to the world does dwell on itself a little too much for my liking, but one can’t fault the film for trying this out, at least – but the pure, man-v-nature story for much of the film is just captivating to watch in action, both on the screen and behind the camera.
I make no secret of Cast Away being my personal favourite of Robert Zemeckis’s movies. Sure, he has Back to The Future and more recent stuff like Flight and The Walk to keep us going, but as a film-maker at the height of his considerable powers and as yet unsullied by the extravagance of the Mo-Cap stage, I doubt there’s better among any of his contemporaries. From the top down, Cast Away is the perfect movie; about a guy struggling to stay alive against the odds, and a marvel of technical wizardry to boot.