AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, HIS JOURNEY BEGINS.
We’ve all watched too many episodes of Survivor to have a realistic image of what it would be like to be stranded on a deserted island. This film, reuniting director Robert Zemeckis with his Forrest Gump star, takes a realistic look at a potentially romantic situation and reveals its horrors. The result is gripping, not least thanks to the fact that it is one of writer William Broyles, Jr.’s best screenplays.
There is also something to be said about a film that turns a volleyball into an individual in such an emotional way that there was talk of this object deserving a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Forced to take a business trip
The story introduces us to FedEx executive Chuck Noland, preaching the value of time to his new employees in Russia; the product placement in this film is on a ridiculous level, but this is probably not the time and place to have that discussion. He returns to Memphis where his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), waits for him. They’re about to spend Christmas together, but Chuck is suddenly forced to take a business trip. While the plane is waiting for him, Kelly gives him a pocket watch, containing a photo of herself, and Chuck gives her an engagement ring. As he walks up to the plane he tells her, “I’ll be right back”. Right then and there we know that he’s doomed. The plane flies straight into a storm and crashes somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Chuck, the only survivor, washes ashore on an island together with all kinds of wreckage from the plane. The first period on the island becomes a challenge. Chuck keeps waiting for rescue to arrive, but figures out in the meantime how to make fire, build a shed, feed himself and explore parts of the island.
Then comes a shock to the audience. We’re thrown four years into the future and find out that Chuck was never rescued. He’s stuck on the island. Now a lot thinner and sporting a beard, he’s turned into someone akin to a Neanderthal; he’s hunting his food and has had to manufacture his own clothing. The only company he has on the island is a volleyball that was inside one of the FedEx packages on the plane; he’s drawn a face on it, given it hair (with grass) and christened it Wilson. We also learn that at one point Chuck tried to kill himself. One day he finds a large piece of a port-a-john and realizes that it could become a vital part of a raft. It’s worth a shot.
Shockingly effective crash
Many things are great about this film. Every detail of the plane crash may not be realistic, but it is shockingly effective and brilliantly directed, one of the most harrowing ever seen on the big screen. To Chuck, life on the island may be dull, but nevertheless riveting to us. The filmmakers create tension with very small means; for instance, if you get a toothache in a place where you’re all alone, what do you do?
The tragedy of all those years on the island is heartbreakingly well captured by Zemeckis – the pathetic relationship between Chuck and Wilson; the harsh reality of life after the trip on the raft; the perfect, open ending to the tune of Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender”. Accompanying all that is Alan Silvestri’s admirably sparse, sad score; Zemeckis knows when to use it to greatest effect and the beauty of the island and the ocean is well represented by cinematographer Don Burgess.
Tom Hanks is brilliant as the man whose job made him a control freak, but whose accident brutally taught him how little that job matters when the control is taken away. The film is a tragedy, but it has a sense of humor, not least thanks to Hanks, one of the screen’s most likable stars ever. His amusing banter with Wilson makes us believe in that character and fear for its life when it is in jeopardy. Bizarrely enough, it is those emotions that lie at the heart of this existentialist drama.
Cast Away 2000-U.S. 143 min. Color. Produced by Tom Hanks, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: William Broyles, Jr. Cinematography: Don Burgess. Music: Alan Silvestri. Cast: Tom Hanks (Chuck Noland), Helen Hunt (Kelly Frears), Nick Searcy (Stan), Lari White, Chris Noth, Jennifer Lewis.
Trivia: The production of the movie was halted for a while as Hanks needed to lose weight and make himself look like a person who had spent four years on a deserted island; in the meantime, Zemeckis made What Lies Beneath (2000).
Golden Globe: Best Actor (Hanks).
Last word: “We used a lot [of CGI] on ‘Cast Away’. Huge. Way more [than ‘Forrest Gump’]. It’s like everything was a digital shot. We had whole fleets of ships that we had to remove. We had other entire islands that were in the shots that we had to remove. That was a huge effects show.” (Zemeckis, DGA)