Robert Zemeckis’ previous film, made during a break in the filming of Cast Away, was What Lies Beneath, a bad thriller with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. What made it so bad was its utter reliance on loud, startling sound effects and sudden symphonic punches on the score. In Cast Away, Zemeckis redeems himself with almost a full hour without music, and almost no dialogue.
PG-13 for language, blood, gore
Hell in the Pacific, starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as American and Japanese soldiers stranded on the same pacific island together during WWII. Two different endings were filmed, one for American audiences, one for Japanese.
Did You Notice?
That hour is made possible by an interesting script by William Broyles, Jr. Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a corporate trainer for a certain delivery company which doesn’t need its name repeated here. At work he’s hard-nosed; every package has to be sorted and on the right truck, by exactly 5:00, not a second later. At home he’s thinking about work.
He spends a few free hours around Christmas with his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt), a biology grad student. But his hopes of a future with her are lost on Christmas Eve, 1995, when he gets paged for a flight across the Pacific. His plane goes down miles off course and Chuck barely survives. Dawn finds him on an isolated island, cast away.
Survival of the Fittest
It’s clear he will not be rescued, at least not soon, so he settles in to the business of survival. The bulk of the movie follows Chuck’s slow progression from castaway to native. He has to overcome physical, emotional, and intellectual problems, which keeps the movie engaging and engrossing.
The pace of the film is surprisingly steady, considering how little dialogue is possible. But each new challenge – exploring the island, finding food, making shelter and fire – is like a little puzzle to be solved, stimulating and satisfying, both for Chuck and for the audience. (One unfortunate side effect is that you are almost guaranteed to sit next to somebody who will feel compelled to verbalize Chuck’s thoughts. You have my condolences.)
Earning His Keep
The worst thing Zemeckis could have done with Cast Away is to let the details fall into deserted-island clichés. The whole premise of the movie is itself a cliché, but there is no need for the specifics or the emotion to remain bland. In fact, Zemeckis and Hanks bring some different insights into what is usually a one-panel cartoon.
For example, I expected a fade from the plane crash, to black, to our castaway on shore. But Zemeckis tells us more of the story than that, showing some of Chuck’s helpless, fearful night at sea. Likewise, the way Chuck signals for help, finds food, and stays sane are all convincingly difficult and unexpectedly common. Everything is earned; Chuck’s success is never cheapened by a quick montage or time-compressed editing.
The drama in Cast Away is sad and low-key. The movie’s pleasures come from Chuck’s minor successes in staying alive. The movie is on a very human scale emotionally, even though the situation is extreme. Zemeckis show how Hanks’ everyman reacts, inviting the viewers to think how they themselves would act and react.
Bought and Paid For
My biggest complaint, and it’s a big one, is that Cast Away sets a new record for product placement. Not only will you have to sit through commercials before the previews roll (a recent phenomenon here in Colorado), but you will also be exposed to one gigantic commercial for a delivery company. For not only does Chuck work for this package company, but in every background of every scene, there is a company logo. On the plane, there is a napkin or a coffee mug. In the background, a truck drives by with this damn company’s logo. Even on the most remote island, packages wash up on shore, and the audience is exposed to this company even here.
The product placement was always a nagging insult. It’s not like the film’s producers needed the money. I refuse to believe that Tom Hanks, Robert Zemeckis and two other producers couldn’t raise the money to make a deserted island picture without prostituting their art.
But ill will toward the advertisers aside, Cast Away was a good human drama. Hanks’ sympathetic performance and Broyles’s detailed script are above average and not a bad way to spend a few hours during the holidays. This deserted island movie is a nice escape from the cold, the stress, and the crowds of late December.