movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 2000 Twentieth Century Fox and Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.)

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Cast Away

Stories about people marooned on islands have a long and prestigious pedigree, including such certified literary classics as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, and Lord of the Flies. Likewise, film history has no shortage of shipwrecks and planewrecks, castaways and survivors -- from Cecil B. DeMille's The Admirable Crichton, Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, and Nicolas Roeg's Castaway to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson and Ernest B. Shoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game. In addition, television has given us such fan favorites as Gilligan's Island and Survivor.

Robert Zemeckis' new foray into this territory, Cast Away, is marvelously crafted and acted. It's a big two-and-a-half-hour adventure about isolation, love, and desperation. By entering terrain so well-trod by novelists and filmmakers, Cast Away immediately begs the question -- why? Why another movie about being stranded on an island? Zemeckis' answer is to explore the learning process that allows the sole survivor of a plane crash to find food and shelter on an isolated South Pacific island. We see this process as Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a gung-ho American systems engineer for a major package delivery company, discovers how to smash open coconuts; how to swim/sail beyond the island's crashing waves; how to build a fire; how to build rope; etc. This is quite possibly the most convincing portrayal ever committed to celluloid of what it means to be isolated on a South Seas island with no human contact. Most importantly, however, Zemeckis is interested in the emotional devastation that accompanies Noland's separation from the woman he loves.

Chuck Noland is a problem solver by profession who craves and lives off of human interaction. In his first scene, he barks out instructions with an intensity that is overwhelming, but in the form of Tom Hanks, one of filmdom's most likable stars, Noland's intensity is admirable, even ingratiating. And when we see him with his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) at a Christmas party, we witness how his eyes brighten with warmth and compassion. He's a great guy. There's no doubt about it. He and Kelly are no doubt headed for marriage. They're great together. However, his warp-speed life that takes him from Moscow to Memphis leaves little room for a personal life. His beeper even goes off on Christmas day, so he quickly packs and heads for the airport: "I'll be right back," he says, after giving Kelly a gift-wrapped package that very likely will prove to be an engagement ring. And then he's gone.

Noland's isolation on a small South Pacific island becomes his most demanding personal test. Learning how to open coconuts and drink their milk or how to build a fire by rubbing sticks together proves to be nothing compared to surviving without Kelly.

Along the way, Zemeckis provides astonishing sequences, such as when a whale surfaces beside his raft on a starry night. The plane crash sequence itself is a true stunner, as harrowing as anything in Titanic. These scenes are wonderfully realized and executed.

Interestingly, two thirds of the way through the movie's running time, the screen goes dark and the words "four years later" appear. We then see a leaner Noland with long hair and a beard -- and a mind frayed to the breaking point from his despair. This jump in time begs the question "Did we really need all the minutiae about Noland's struggle for survival?" Did we really need two hours of screen time before the jump to four years later? If the movie is about the effect of isolation upon Noland's sanity, why does Zemeckis rush through Noland's return to civilization? The scenes on the island are protracted and leisurely -- but once Noland returns to his hometown, Zemeckis provides only the bare essentials.

Because Zemeckis approaches Cast Away as if it's a huge blockbuster movie, he is locked into giving us a two-and-a-half-hour adventure. So he repeats the same points over and over about how Noland learns to survive and drags the movie out to an absurd length. Like Noland, we have to endure a huge block of time before we get the payoff. Cast Away is mostly two hours of setting up a situation -- with a no-brainer resolution: life goes on. The ending is mainly distinguished by Zemeckis' refusal to fall back upon a predictable Hollywood conclusion.

Thanks to Tom Hanks' presence and Zemeckis' visual panache, Cast Away feels like a substantial movie, but it's mostly recycled Robinson Crusoe, updated for contemporary audiences.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]