[Written for The Herald]
Robinson Crusoe lives again, in the utterly engrossing desert island drama Cast Away.
This film works for a variety of reasons. But one of the best is the simple dilemma that Mr. Crusoe faced in Daniel Defoe’s novel: how to survive in sandswept isolation (without the tribal councils of Survivor, yet). Cast Away began as the brainchild of actor-producer Tom Hanks, who nurtured the idea with screenwriter William Broyles (Apollo 13) and his Oscar-winning Forrest Gump director, Robert Zemeckis. The result is something close to the best of big Hollywood picture-making.
The story itself is simple: Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a gung-ho systems engineer with Federal Express. (The use of the FedEx logo may constitute the biggest product placement in movie history.) We first meet Chuck in Moscow, where he is rallying the Russian FedEx troops. Hard-charging Chuck is obsessed with time: “Time rules over us!” he shouts, as he hurries along his workers. His whole life is devoted to making things go faster. He’s planning to take a break back home in Memphis with girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), but the company needs him. So he departs for the Far East, into the teeth of a storm.
In a truly unnerving sequence, the plane crashes, and Chuck flops into a life raft. The current brings him to a desolate, uninhabited island, where he — armed with a few floating FedEx packages — must learn how to live. The movie, which had been moving briskly, comes to a dead stop. All of a sudden Chuck, like the movie, has all the time he needs.
This is Zemeckis’s most inspired decision: showing Chuck’s slow evolution. To get juice out of a coconut, Chuck must create a knife and figure out how to use it. We see all the failures before he finally hits on the right technique. His struggle to start a fire is similarly hit and miss. You might think this process would be boring, yet the movie has you so invested in Chuck’s struggle that it’s spellbinding.
Without giving too much away (even though the shameful coming-attractions trailer betrays the entire storyline), the final act of Cast Away is a bit of a letdown — but even here it has brilliant moments.
Tom Hanks once again uses his Everyman qualities to draw us into the film. Most of the acclaim for his performance will probably focus on his extraordinary physical transformation. At the beginning of the movie Hanks is beefy and solid; by the time he’s at the end of his island sojourn, he is lean and tan, with wild hair and a bushy beard. Hanks was able to transform his body thanks to the unusual production schedule of Cast Away. After shooting the first half of the movie (partly in the Fiji islands), the crew took a year’s hiatus. Zemeckis went off to make What Lies Beneath, and Hanks lost weight.
By concentrating on the most basic elements of existence — survival, loneliness, faith — Zemeckis and Hanks have created something completely engrossing, and quite moving. It would be nice if the rest of Hollywood, obsessed with special effects and breakneck speed, would take heed.