Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 11, 2015)
In my dream world, Iíd love to never know a darned thing about any movie that I see. While some films actually benefit from foreknowledge, most of the time they work best when you donít know what will come around the corner.
While I never saw Cast Away prior to my acquisition of the original 2001 DVD, I still didnít enter it as fresh as I would have liked; the slate wasnít full, but nor was it blank. Much of the reason for that stemmed from the filmís trailers.
As is usually the case with the films of director Robert ďI love spoilers!Ē Zemeckis, the previews gave away an awful lot of the story. I didnít think the ads for Cast Away were as offensive in that regard as were the promos for Contact and What Lies Beneath, but they left less to the imagination than Iíd like.
However, I must acknowledge that Cast Away is difficult to discuss without the appearance of potential spoilers. Iíll do my best to avoid those, but if youíre eager to avoid any potential plot points, feel free to skip to my discussion of the discís quality. Iím wonít cover any material not revealed during the movieís ads, but since those are so spoiler-filled, that decision may still be problematic.
Cast Away tells the story of FedEx employee Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks). A resident of Memphis, he works as an efficiency expert and he trains FedEx teams to perform as expeditiously as possible. Time rules his universe, and as he leaves girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) for an apparently-quick trip, he tells her ďIíll be right backĒ.
Or maybe not. As part of Godís great plan to teach Chuck not to worry so much about time, his flight crashes into the Pacific. Heís the sole survivor and he washes up on a deserted island. Left with little more than his wits to survive, we follow Chuckís attempts at survival.
On the surface, thereís not much to Cast Away; the plot seems so thin thatís it hard to imagine the filmmakers could fill an hour with its events, much less 143 minutes. However, not only does Zemeckis occupy that lengthy period with material, but also he and the rest of the crew create a rather fascinating experience that succeeds well beyond my hopes.
I maintain somewhat ambivalent feelings toward Zemeckisí body of work. At his best, he can be absolutely terrific. Going back to the Seventies, I always loved his loopy Beatles-related comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and all three of the Back to the Future flicks are fun. 1988ís Who Framed Roger Rabbit was also a delightful film, and Zemeckis has produced a number of other enjoyable projects over the years.
And then there was Gump. Objectively, 1994ís Forrest Gump was a decent movie, but I never have understood the popularity it inspired, and its Oscar victory over the vastly-superior Pulp Fiction remains absurd.
Since Gump, Zemeckis has been less than terrific. 1997ís Contact was marginally entertaining but tedious, and was a near-total dud. Zemeckis spent years with lackluster animated films before he returned to live-action with 2012ís flawed Flight.
To put it mildly, I really liked Cast Away, mostly due to the excellent performance by Hanks. One unfortunate problem with his two Best Actor victories is that they come from somewhat gimmicky roles. For his character in Philadelphiz, Hanks had to lose a lot of weight to simulate the ravages of illness, whereas in Gump he played a moron. Oscar loves performances that require the actor to stretch in some superficial manner, and Hanks met those criteria via these two roles.
Ironically, what was arguably Hanksí strongest performance came as the boy-turned-man in 1988ís Big, but he lost to a pre-Gump mentally deficient character due to Dustin Hoffmanís work in Rain Man. For the record, I suppose one could call Bigís Josh a ďgimmickyĒ part since Hanks played a boy in a manís body, but at least Hanks had to play a regular human being. The character had no mental issues, and Hanks had to do nothing to alter his appearance. While Philadelphiaís Andrew was an average guy, the physical demands put the role into ďgimmickĒ territory in my opinion.
For Cast Away, Hanks again needed to go through some physical changes, and these were actually more severe than those experienced for Philadelphia. Prior to the start of shooting, Hanks gained a load of blubber and appeared that way during the filmís first half.
The movie was shot in two parts, and after a few months of initial photography, the project went into almost a yearís hiatus so Hanks could lose weight and grow hair. When they reconvened in early 2000, Hanks had dropped about 50 pounds and scruffied up himself to play Chuck after four years on the island.
While itíd be easy to dismiss Hanksí work in Cast Away as the kind of physical gimmickry Iíve discussed, thatíd be far too easy. Instead, Hanks offers a truly great performance as the stranded man that proves to be shockingly fascinating. Much of Cast Away passes with little dialogue and not much apparently-compelling action; I mean, how interesting is it to watch a guy try to start a fire? Pretty darned interesting, as it happens, at least when Hanks is the man at work.
A great deal of the film simply displays Chuckís attempts to survive on the island, and all of this should seem dull. There were no other humans with whom he could interact, so it was all up to Hanks. Sure, he adds a simulated person via volleyball Wilson partway through his journey, and that at least allows him to speak to ďsomeoneĒ, but there are no people to take the load off of Hanks or give him anything against which he can react.
Itís all up to Hanks, and he comes through swimmingly. I canít adequately describe why the performance is so good; itís one that must be seen to be appreciated. All I know is that itís ridiculous that Russell Crowe beat Hanks for Best Actor; while Crowe was solid during his star-making turn in Gladiator, his work doesnít compare with the demands and subtleties of Hanksí.
Frankly, itís sad that Cast Away received so little Oscar attention. The movie didnít even get a nod for Best Picture although itís a more creative, compelling and adventuresome effort than most of those that were nominated. Perhaps all of this came from a mild backlash against Hanks and Zemeckis; I canít think of another good reason why something unusual like Cast Away would be left out while a trifle such as Chocolat got a nod.
Despite a few minor missteps, Cast Away remains a surprisingly entertaining and winning experience. The subject sounds boring but the execution ensured that almost none of the movie passes without interesting and compelling events. Led by a great performance from Tom Hanks, Cast Away offers an unusual tale that succeeds beyond all hopes and creates an engrossing story.