Tom Hanks is one of the few people on this planet who’s almost in total control of his career. Whatever Tom wants from Hollywood, Tom gets.
A couple of years ago, Tom decided he wanted to star in a movie in which he spends 75 minutes of screen time alone on a desert island talking to a volleyball. He had a vague story idea for an expensive film about a man who’s marooned on a desert island and learns a whole new way of life—and Twentieth Century Fox not only let Tom make the film, it hired Robert Zemeckis to direct the volleyball.
The season of Christmas togetherness has brought us Cast Away, a flaky but oftentimes penetrating film dedicated to the examination of loneliness. Hanks is Chuck Noland, a Federal Express troubleshooter who’s necessarily obsessed with time as he crisscrosses the globe. He leaves an engagement ring as a Christmas present for his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) right before embarking on another business trip.
But with typical Zemeckis panache, the FedEx plane goes down in a horrific explosion and crash. Chuck is presumed dead, of course, but he washes up on a South Pacific atoll along with a bunch of non-sequitur packages from the plane.
As Chuck’s weeks on the island stretch into years, we see the fascinating spectacle of a man losing his sense of self. Even more than his body or his looks, Chuck depended on his job and, by extension, time itself to mark his existence; without time, Chuck must discover whether there’s anything else. Instead of navel-gazing, however, Chuck must be most concerned with surviving. Coconuts don’t crack, there are no dentists, and there’s nobody to talk to—and no orchestral score, thanks to Zemeckis.
Hanks almost can’t help but succeed here. For most of the film, he’s the only guy on screen, and we’re going to feel a certain empathy with the only character, no matter what he’s doing. Playing this role is a bit of an ego trip for Hanks, but it’s also a bit of a gamble. He constantly risks losing our interest, but he hangs on to it with subtle touches—the increasingly complicated nature of his conversations with Wilson (the volleyball, who has a face Chuck painted with his own blood) or the delicate way Chuck’s composure grows thinner and thinner until he’s crying ridiculously at small setbacks.
The film eschews most sentimentality—there’s no time for it, what with Chuck learning to be an island guerrilla and live off the land. In a way, he’s recapitulating the history of man, and it’s fun to watch. By the final days of his stay, Chuck’s doughy exterior has been replaced by wild hair and sinew (as was well publicized, filming was shut down while Hanks lost 50 pounds to effect the changes). The normal guy we knew turns into a creature bent on survival.
Zemeckis stays out of the way here, which is the only way to film someone who’s profoundly alone. Aside from some sweeping vista shots on the island, Zemeckis’ camera remains mostly passive, and the lack of music further underscores Chuck’s predicament. Just about any chance to turn this into a showy piece de resistance is avoided by both Zemeckis and Hanks. It’s a surprisingly anti-populist bent from two guys swimming directly in the Hollywood mainstream—but it’s a successful artistic choice.
To be sure, there also are moments when it doesn’t work. The whole talking-to-a-volleyball thing is a fine metaphor, but it’s hard to stifle a grin during some of the more interactive scenes. And we might learn a little bit too much about how to survive on a desert island, thanks to some over-deliberate pacing late. Then there’s the ending, which couldn’t possibly succeed. After the dynamic second act, there’s literally nowhere to go.
When it’s over, Cast Away feels like an important experience. We’re not quite sure exactly what we learned, but we know we’ve been thinking about things that wouldn’t have occurred to us earlier, and we did it while watching another proficiently photographed and staged film from Zemeckis.
This might not be the picture you’d want to be stranded on a desert island with, but as Chuck showed us, videotape can be used as rope. In the Christmas season, this is the film that keeps on giving.
Cast Away (PG-13) HHH Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt and Nick Searcy.