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CAST AWAY(director: Robert Zemeckis; screenwriter: William Broyles Jr.; cinematographer: Don Burgess; editor: Arthur Schmidt; cast: Tom Hanks (Chuck Noland), Helen Hunt (Kelly Frears), Nick Searcy (Stan), Chris Noth (Jerry Lovett), Lari White (Bettina Peterson); Runtime: 143; 20th Century Fox/Dreamworks; 2000)
“The major fault of the film lies in the capricious ending…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A risky commercial film venture that sometimes works in a serious way but is somewhat beaten down by the lack of vision it exhibits while in its romantic mode, as opposed to how alluring it was as a moralistic survival film. The film is carried solely by Tom Hanks’ splendid performance, with him reflecting without the need of dramatics or dialogue the changes he is going through. He acts through use of facial expressions and body language. He even starts off as a bit overweight, but by the time he leaves his island, he’s skinny (He must have gone on some crash diet to have lost the reported 50 pounds he did for the pic!).

Warning: spoilers to follow throughout.

The adventure story is reminiscent of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe tale without a Friday as a servant and is divided into three distinct parts, with Tom Hanks being the film’s mainstay. In the first part Hanks’s shown as a compulsive workaholic, a stickler for efficiency and being on time, who is employed as a FedEx management system engineer from Memphis. Hanks is a visitor in the new free market Russia of the mid-nineties, there to help his company get more efficient in its deliveries. On his return from Russia, Hanks exchanges Christmas gifts at the Memphis airport runway with his grad-student girlfriend Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) and tells her he’ll be right back from this latest assignment to Asia. Hanks is about to pop the marriage question to Kelly but must catch his plane, so he instead gives her a wrapped box with a ring in it and tells her they’ll open it together when he returns on New Year’s Eve. But Hanks’ FedEx plane runs into foul weather and strays off course and then explodes in mid-air from undisclosed chemicals it has in storage and he becomes the sole survivor, using the plane’s raft to reach a barren island.

The second part of the film is almost bare of dialogue and runs for close to two hours, showing how Hanks survives while living alone on this South Pacific island for 4 years. The striking visuals and penetrating silence, give this film a surprising depth to its storytelling.

The last part of the film, shows Hanks returning from being perceived as dead and having to adjust to Kelly marrying and raising a family.

The heart of the film is about Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) ironically going from his job where he is obsessed by time, to living on a barren island where time doesn’t matter and there is no rush to do anything. Hanks slowly learns how to survive, light a fire without matches, cut open the coconuts, catch crabs, build a shelter, and as an additional irony, he is surrounded by FedEx packages washed ashore. Hanks learns to make use of the various objects he finds. In one of the packages, he comes across a volleyball and smears a blood-stained face on it and names it Wilson. He converses with it as if it were a human companion. Hanks’ is now faced with panic and he reacts by acting childlike, thinking that is the only way he can survive without going nuts.

There were times that this island fare seemed mildly poetic, but at other times it began to wear heavy as time dragged with only Tom Hanks on the screen to keep the fire going. Yet the film had a certain appeal to it…a boldness not often seen in commercial films, as it bravely did without dialogue for great parts of the island story. This lent a certain sense of unpredictability to it and made the simple story lend itself to being more introspective.

The major fault of the film lies in the capricious ending, where it ran out of story and didn’t know how to make Hanks’ return to Memphis and civilization shed some light on what he’s been through without trivializing that experience. Hanks, while on a deserted crossroad after delivering a FedEx package that survived the crash, doesn’t seem certain of what’s in store for him in the future but puts on a bravely artificial face as he wanly smiles (knowingly, he will always live alone with that island experience).

But what didn’t resonate was the ambiguity of the film’s ending. I think the film had nowhere to go after Hanks was rescued by ship while on a raft, as he chose to take a perilous chance to sail the ocean in order to get back to civilization rather than remain as a caveman-like survivor on that desolate island. That is the simple point the film is trying to make and where the film should have ended; but when it tries to reinforce its sappy love story with characters who had too little screen time to have an effect on the story and it forces corny words on those characters in order to resolve Hanks’ love situation, the film thereby loses something real. Otherwise, a pleasing film from the director of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis. One of his better ones…with the adventure part of the film having some appeal though not delving deeply enough into the survivor’s psyche for it to have an even greater appeal. But it was far superior to that recently popular Survivor TV show, which had more to do about making a million bucks than surviving.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”