In a way, the obnoxious tell-all trailer for Cast Away gives away more than the film itself. That trailer, with moronic thoroughness, reveals the film’s set-up, the crisis, the hero’s ups and downs, his triumph, the climax, and the denouement. What it doesn’t let on is that the movie itself won’t tell you what to think or how to feel about what happens, even at the end. The trailer is typical Hollywood feel-good, inspirational fare; the story in the film is rather more ambiguous and challenging.
Perhaps the trailer’s design reflects solid marketing data, which support the melancholy conclusion that people are more likely to be moved to want to see a film by a preview that reveals everything that happens in a movie than by a preview that tries to tantalize while preserving some of the film’s secrets. I wonder how the sort of people reflected in such marketing data will feel about this actual film once they’ve been lured into the theater to see it.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about it myself. Certainly I found Cast Away a profoundly involving, memorable film; yet, walking out of the theater, I couldn’t identify my mood as obviously exhilarated, depressed, inspired, or anything else. I felt quiet, muted, thoughtful. I was glad I had seen it, glad it had been made. Perhaps that’s a response you can’t sell in a sixty-second trailer.
The first act of Cast Away finds us in familiar territory, both physically and cinematically. It’s here that Zemeckis’ film most resembles a typical, formula Hollywood movie. When we see Tom Hanks playing a confident, hyper-driven, well-fed Fed-Ex executive named Chuck Noland who neglects his personal life while jet-setting about the globe delivering motivational speeches to Fed-Ex employees about living and dying by the clock, we understand the obvious irony: Chuck is about to be taught a lesson in slowing down and reevaluating his priorities. When Chuck complains about a nagging toothache, we groan in expectation of the impeding complications this will entail. When he calls "I’ll be right back" to his fianceé (ubiquitous Helen Hunt), even those who managed to avoid the trailer now know beyond argument that Chuck won’t, in fact, be back any time soon.
This is all standard-issue stuff; yet, like everything else about Chuck’s life, it all goes by the wayside when his corporate flight goes down hundreds of miles off course in a storm in the Pacific. The plane crash itself is one of the most wrenching ever filmed, eclipsing crash scenes from films such as Alive and U. S. Marshalls. And the harrowing period after Chuck escapes from the sinking fuselage is as fearful as the crash itself.
But it isn’t for awhile that we really understand the extent to which we aren’t in Kansas any more, cinematically speaking. No symphonic background music accompanies Chuck’s arrival on the uninhabited island, or anything that happens there afterward. No rapid cuts or arty camera angles liven up the proceedings. Instead, lingering images of endless ocean vistas and unsympathetic rocky heights emphasize Chuck’s utter desolation. Except for a couple of pathetic cries for help upon arrival, Chuck doesn’t speak, even to himself, for a long, long time. There’s nothing for him to do but try to survive; and nothing for us to do but watch him.
Actors in movies are usually shown reciting dialogue with other actors. Sometimes we see them fighting or shooting guns or speeding in cars, sometimes embracing or sliding into bed, sometimes simply standing around looking attractive. Very often, when a character is actually required to do something — tie his shoes, play the piano, flip a burger, unscrew a screw, type on a keyboard — the action is implied, not actually shown. The actor’s hands are just offscreen; his arms move and we hear sound effects, but the thing itself — what the person is actually doing — is deemed of little interest.
Now, here is this slightly heavy, hapless, barefoot man, armed only with the clothes on his back and a pager and pocketwatch that no longer work, confronted with an ocean of water he can’t drink, jagged rocks he can’t walk on, ominous noises he can’t identify, coconuts he can’t open, and — as flotsam from the crash begins to wash ashore — Fed-Ex packages he can’t deliver. Slowly, fumblingly, with many false starts, this man goes about trying to survive: to stay alive, to get water, to find food, to keep himself sufficiently protected from the environment and elements.
And we watch. It’s a fascinating sight. Chuck has flashes of ingenuity that filled me with the thrill of discovery and invention, and stretches of failure that I felt just as acutely. At the heart of all this is perhaps the performance of Hanks’ life, a performance unaided by the synergy of other actors or the usual moviemaking props. Much has been made of Hanks’ dramatic weight gain and loss (production shut down for the better part of a year as Hanks dropped more than fifty pounds and let his hair and beard grow), but what he does onscreen is more remarkable than what he did off it.
Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Chuck never finds any religious significance or hope in his predicament; he never even offers up an agnostic prayer for help. Instead, he turns to the memory of his absent fianceé Kelly, whose image he carries with him in that pocketwatch, and an imaginary friend named "Wilson" that he fashions for himself along the way.
Neither of these relationships, of course, is quite real. Wilson is only a soccer ball; and Kelly is thousands of miles away, and even if he could return, he wouldn’t necessarily be able to return to his relationship with her. Yet, somehow, Chuck’s determination to stay alive — to keep breathing — isn’t really dependent upon either of these quasi-relationships; a fact that becomes clear when he finally escapes the island. (You did know that was coming, didn’t you?) With this third act, the film returns us to familiar surroundings; yet the story remains in uncharted waters. Chuck’s homecoming isn’t anything you could quite predict or expect. In a sense, he’s still very much a castaway.
In his last film, The Green Mile, Hanks played another character who went through an extraordinary, life-changing experience. In my critique of that film, I observed that his character, who looked forward only to death, seemed no wiser, happier, or freer for the experience than he had been before. Chuck Noland has gained something. What’s more, his journey isn’t over yet… and he doesn’t want it to be.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.