Cast Away is hardly the type of big-budget Hollywood film one would expect from star Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, who first teamed up back in 1994 for Forrest Gump. A sombre drama that actually dares to spend close to 80 minutes almost in total silence, Cast Away shows yet again that Hanks is an extraordinarily versatile actor, while also showing that Zemeckis is a director capable of showing restraint when needed.
Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a man obsessed with time. As an executive for Federal Express, he travels all over the world to whip the company’s employees into being Punctual Petes (we first meet Chuck as he yells ‘We live or we die by the clock!’ to Fed Ex employees in Moscow). He also makes sure that he is home to celebrate the holidays with the love of his life, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt). But, work beckons and Chuck heeds the call, promising Kelly that he “will be right back” in time to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her.
Unfortunately, nature has other plans. While flying over the South Pacific, the engine on the plane carrying Noland as a passenger explodes and crashes, with only Noland surviving (this sequence is both a magnificent set piece and terrifying as hell). He washes up on an island, one completely devoid of any other living thing. Here, over the course of four and a half years, Chuck must learn to survive, not only in the most basic ways of acquiring food and building shelter, but he also must learn how to start over again in a place where there are time, keeping schedules and punctuality are nonexistent.
Almost everyone who is reading this review by now knows what happens to Chuck thanks to a trailer and television ad campaign that gives most of the third act away. For those who don’t, you will just have to see the film to find out on your own. Still, the conclusion is hardly what matters in Cast Away. It is the middle 80 minutes where Chuck is alone on the island that makes this movie something truly spectacular to behold. There is no music, no cutting away to a rescue mission with tons of boats and planes, no cutaway shots of Kelly crying back in the States.
Instead, it is Hanks, perfectly conveying Chuck’s fear, anger, pain and desperation as he does all he can to survive. Zemeckis wisely holds back in areas where almost any other director would have gone overboard to tell the viewer what to experience, instead allowing Hanks’ body language and facial expressions to make the viewer feel as if they are on the island right alongside him. He even manages to engage us emotionally in his conversations with a volleyball named Wilson (the ball was part of the wreckage washed up on shore), one that he converses with in order to keep his sanity. There are a lot of great actors out there besides Tom Hanks, but I’d be damned if there is anyone who could have pulled this role off as well as he did. As for Helen Hunt, I have not been a fan of her work of recent (What Women Want, Pay It Forward), but for the limited screen time she has here, I think she turned in a fine performance.
I don’t believe that Cast Away will win over every person that sees it. I believe that those going in expecting another Forrest Gump are going to be in for a shock and those who like their Hollywood movies to be cut and dry with a sappy, happily ever after ending are going to hate the film. But for those who want something different, something with a bit of substance and something worth your time and money, this film is hard to beat.