Cast Away
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Valerie Wildman, Geoffrey Blake, Jennifer Lewis

Robert Zemeckis

Writing credits: William Broyles, Jr.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Rated: PG-13 for intense action sequences and some disturbing images
  (USA 2000)

Talented artists often are at their best when fighting against their predilections. The best creative solutions are rarely the first ones thought of, and bypassing one's immediate impulse is often an excellent way of finding a more meaningful. enriching experience.

Take, for instance, the director Robert Zemeckis and America's favorite actor, Tom Hanks. Both men are superior talents, having created movies of great depth (Zemeckis' CONTACT, Hanks' PHILADELPHIA) that exhibit both mastery of their art form and inspirational level of imagination.

When the two men join forces, however, it seems that they reinforce the worst impulses in each other...namely, an overwhelming urge to indulge in emotional cliches. In both their 1994 collaboration FORREST GUMP, as well as in their new picture CAST AWAY, these two men begin with an intriguing premise...and, by the film's end, smother that premise under a tidal wave of sentimentality and schmaltz.

CAST AWAY's premise isn't a new idea, borrows heavily not only from that other island survivor's tale, "Robinson Crusoe", but also from man-against-the-elements stories dating back to Homer's "The Odyssey". But don't assume that it's all been done before -- just because stranded-island stories aren't new, doesn't mean they're not worthwhile. On the contrary, part of the reason they succeed is because of our familiarity with the territory.

And so CAST AWAY begins on familiar turf, with Chuck Noland (Hanks), a Federal Express executive whose high-pressure job has overtaken his personal life...including the woman he loves (Helen Hunt). On Christmas Eve, a business emergency arises, and Chuck reluctantly takes a FedEx plane to Malaysia. And anyone who knows the title of the movie should have a distinct feeling that that plane isn't going to make it to Malaysia.

Stranded on a tropical island, Chuck is essentially forced to reinvent civilization: make fire, build shelter, and catch food. Even mundane tasks, like bandaging wounds or opening a coconut, become nearly impossible tasks, requiring ingenuity and determination rarely called upon in civilized life. These first days on the island become the most interesting segment of the film, and Hanks, as a man battling monsoons, the ocean, and Mother Nature herself, is in his element.

But then CAST AWAY begins to unravel like a ball of yarn. The first problem appears when screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. (ENTRAPMENT, APOLLO 13) runs out of ideas -- a shocking downward spiral in a movie that has had, up to this point, an interesting set of plot turns. So, of all things, a Port-A-Potty appears out of nowhere (yes, a Port-O-Potty), giving Chuck the raw materials he needs to formulate a dangerous escape.

It's rather shameful how quickly things fall apart; at least Zemeckis, after trying to give us such a gritty island experience, should have been more diligent at holding the schmaltz at bay. Soon, we have poor Chuck being watched over by kindhearted whales (!). Not long after, a cargo ship just happens to float by. (!!)

Zemeckis and Hanks really lay it on thick in the film's final act, which includes a preposterously scripted reunion with Hunt (who has remarried and had a child in the intervening four years -- not that any of those facts stops her from literally running to embrace Hanks, in the rain no less). The film's final cheesy scene -- suffice to say it involves a four-year-old FedEx package, a pair of angel wings, and a new love interest for Chuck -- will leave most moviegoers feeling a bit seasick themselves.

It's not that sentimentality is a bad thing in itself; films like JERRY MAGUIRE and Hanks' own SAVING PRIVATE RYAN prove that overblown emotion can be very moving, in the right context. But in CAST AWAY, the sentimentality is at odds with the film's survival metaphors. Does a man who has spent four years of his life scrounging for fish and coconuts really say claptrap like "The sun will come up tomorrow...we'll just have to see which way the tide flows?"

For those fans of Hanks and Zemeckis who would like to see my head on a stick, save your angry emails, please. Here's the nice things I can say: CAST AWAY is well-made, with lush cinematography by Don Burgess and truly marvelous sound effects editing by Ken Fischer. My point here is that, technical strengths aside, CAST AWAY is a frustrating mix of gritty survivalism and Hollywood fantasy, irritating in its attempt to be both honest and implausible at the same time. Contrary to Forrest's mama, life is not really like a box of chocolates. And kindhearted whales do not take care of weary island castaways.

If you must see CAST AWAY, you must...I know there are a lot of people out there, like me, who adore Tom Hanks. When you're leaving the theatre, however, and you notice that unsatisfied feeling in your stomach, don't say you weren't warned. Pack some Dramamine.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2000 Gabriel Shanks. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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