Cast Away has long served as my instant “poster child” for movies promoted by the worst sort of trailer. I really didn’t want to sit through its theatrical release after seeing the Cliff’s Notes version of the plot revealed in the trailers, and I’m not a big fan of Forrest Gump. But word began to leak out from some respected critics that the South Seas waters would be safe, and that there is some value in seeing mostly Tom alone on the Robert Zemeckis island.
It’s actually true that a 2 hour film that features Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball is far more interesting than a film of Tom Hanks preaching platitudes about chocolates and running across America with a crowd of human sheep. There’s actually a heartfelt message that will last for a couple hours afterwards – it may even flash back whenever you see a volleyball or a Federal Express package.
What do we know from the trailer?
Hanks is a Federal Express supervisor from Memphis who flies around the world, including Moscow.
- He has a fiancé in Memphis, who gives him a pocket watch with her picture on the inside that will help Hanks get through his ordeal.
- The Fed Express plane ride won’t make it on time to its destination and takes a stormy plunge into the ocean.
- Hanks will be the only survivor by grabbing onto a life raft.
- Hanks will play the Survivor game on the island, catching fish, and talking to a volleyball.
- After four years Hanks will return to civilization, but everyone had given up on him, including his fiancé.
- Hanks will have to start life all over.
It turns out that the trailer doesn’t mislead us, and does supply us with the basic outline of the story, missing a few of the survival details that you may have learned in Scouts and thankfully missing Hanks’ dentistry methods.
The film still has enough syrupy moments and blatant symbolism to label this a Zemeckis film. There’s the bookended Texas crossroads that are discussed at length at the end in case the visual clues haven’t clobbered you over the head, the sentimental story of the watch, and last Federal Express package that the dutiful Hanks decides to deliver personally. Hanks' character Chuck makes such a big deal about the value of time and not wasting time with the Russian workers, that we anticipate the balance that must come on the island where the only timetable is living through another day.
The original idea for Cast Away came from Tom Hanks himself, and he is listed among the producers along with Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg and four others. Cynics may say it was a ploy to avoid starring with Meg Ryan again, or a way to ensure another Oscar nod, or a forced way to lose weight. Director Zemeckis actually did shut down the film for several months for Hanks to lose at least 75 lbs. That makes his four-year diet of crab legs, fish, and coconut milk more believable, but I have to think that he worked very hard with a personal trainer because he also tones his muscles a great deal. A little hard to believe that he was able to do that much weight training on the island.
Hanks does make the one man performance work as well as the film can, showing us many honest and heartfelt scenes. There are bits of humor with his facial expressions and the audience titters a bit when Hanks for calls out, “Hello, Anybody?” The film shifts gears when Hanks returns to civilization, and this is a place for a director’s cut. Except in this case, longer is not better. We could have dealt with the same issues more effectively on the rescuing tanker, and used something besides those Texas crossroads as a lame symbolic bookend. Hanks carries us for well over an hour on the island and another fifteen minutes on the raft. Why not let him end the film alone as well instead of tying things up, messing them up, and then leaving Tom alone anyway?
Cast Away represents the second major man vs. nature on the high seas to come out this year, but this one works much better than The Perfect Storm because the screenplay develops the character. Even the Wilson volleyball gains more sympathy than the cardboard characters of the earlier sea movie. I kid you not! The audience actually gasps when it looks like the bloody volleyball will be lost at sea!
There’s actually more emotional tension developed when Hanks jumps overboard to retrieve the volleyball than there is between Hanks and Helen Hunt in their final scene together. I’ve got to give some credit to any film that can manipulate the audience that well. No masterpiece by any means, but Cast Away remains tolerable fare for mainstream audiences.
Any edginess that might have been suspected with a largely one-man show was blunted by the publicity campaign that gives away the basic plot. Hanks fully deserved kudos for his work, yet the Wilson volleyball should have received some supporting actor recognition for its understated, nuanced performance. Far more self control than the film distributors displayed during its theatrical run.