Cast Away

"I'll be right back!"

Robinson Crusoe, this ain’t. The kneejerk reaction has been to associate Cast Away with Robinson Crusoe, which does both the novel and this unique, very flawed movie a disservice. Robert Zemeckis’s love child will be remembered more for what Tom Hanks had to go through during filming than for any artistic merits it has as a film. Those who praise Cast Away for being unusual are accurate, but pointlessly so: its novelty is defeated by its meandering script, which needed a rewrite, or three.

Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a FedEx executive who lives by the clock (which, I might add, is quite a plug for the delivery carrier). His life is focused on punctuality — not only in his job, which requires it, but in his family life as well. One Christmas Eve, as he’s trying to catch yet another plane, he and his wife wind up exchanging gifts in the car at the airport. Kelly (Helen Hunt) gives him a pocketwatch with her picture in it. As he runs to the airplane, he waves and yells that most ominous of movie lines: “I’ll be right back!”

He doesn’t come back. On his way back, in a rush to reach Memphis on schedule, his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean and he gets washed up on a deserted tropical island along with a bunch of FedEx packages. At first, Chuck tries stunts like spelling “help” with tree branches but soon comes to terms with the near-certainty that he is too far from a feasible search area to be rescued anytime soon. Resigned to this fact, he begins opening the FedEx packages hoping to find something useful inside.

No such luck, or at least so it seems. He does find a volleyball, which he affectionately names Wilson (BUY WILSON ATHLETIC PRODUCTS IMMEDIATELY!) and treats as his companion. His conversations with the inanimate object inspire chuckles from the audience when, in fact, they are some of the only sources of real pathos here.

The reason Cast Away had Hollywood abuzz is that the film’s middle hour is spent solely with Chuck alone on the island with little dialogue. You may think this sounds boring; think again. Zemeckis is a stunnningly brilliant technical director and he manages to pull a Contact once again: there isn’t a hell of a lot happening that any sane person would consider, er, interesting but the atmosphere he maintains makes it impossible for us to take our eyes off it.

As the advertising campaign blatantly revealed, Chuck does make it back home to his wife, who has remarried, had kids and moved on with her life. This is where things start going downhill. You’d assume that any intelligent screenwriter would know that when a man comes back from a four-year absence to a woman who thought he was dead, such a conflict can’t be resolved in 20 minutes. That is obviously a bad assumption, since screenwriter William Broyles (Apollo 13) attempts to do exactly that. Not only does the denoument feel phony and abbreviated, but the script insists on tacking on a displaced, heavy-handed, painfully unsubtle ending that adds pretense to a simple, compelling story.

This isn’t a first time a long-awaited movie has turned out to be a crushing disappointment and it won’t be the last, but the loss is made even more wrenching when one considers how little it would have taken to make Cast Away a great movie. You know the shot they showed in the trailers, the one where Helen Hunt slowly opens her door and sees Tom Hanks, drenched by the rain, with a look of terrified wonder in his eyes? A fade to black right after it would have done the trick.

-- Eugene Novikov

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