Cast Away, the new movie directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks, follows the life of Chuck Noland (Hanks), an over-achieving efficiency expert for FedEx who is stranded on a deserted island after his plane crashes “somewhere in the South Pacific.” Judging by the attention paid to the details of Chuck’s ordeal, it appears that the film wants to be a social commentary on the emptiness of materialism and the need for spirituality in modern life. However, it never transcends its artistic posing to engage the issues it is positioned to explore.
Cast Away starts with an obvious metaphor that immediately reveals its metaphysical leanings. The first shot is of a crossroads in the middle of a Texan nowhere. This would be the intersection of time and space: there are four paths, four possible destinies. Cast Away chronicles one, but never lets the viewer forget that the others exist. At every step, the film’s characters and plot-turns remind the audience that Chuck—and, by extension, the viewer—is subject to millions of small, uncontrollable events that can irrevocably alter his life. The movie uses this tired, a-butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-Central-Park-and-there-is-a-hurricane-in-Fiji philosophical shorthand throughout to convince viewers that it is “deep.”
The film’s second shot is another simplification, this one quoting Zemeckis and Hanks’ previous collaboration, Forrest Gump. Here we see a long, straight road that reaches toward the distant horizon, recalling the shot that marks the end of Forrest’s cross-country marathon, when he stops dead in the middle of a deserted Arizona highway and informs his companions, “I’m tired of running. I’m going home now.” The reference may be a bit esoteric, but it hints that Cast Away, like Forrest Gump, is appealing to some faith in a spiritual power, though the new movie doesn’t offer even the minor insights one might have found in Gump.
Repeatedly, Cast Away uses a minimalistic realism to frame its argument, not so much that material culture is bad, but that we take it for granted. This framing consists of a limited soundtrack, reserved acting, and occasional grisly imagery. Long periods pass between instrumentals, and on the island, nearly 20 minutes go by without dialogue. In one scene, a deep breath from Hanks communicates the emotion—relief, heartache, pain, all at once—that many Hollywood films would use an orchestra and verbose dialogue to convey. Here the movie underplays its drama. At other moments, it clearly exhibits Chuck’s emotional reactions, as in the decidedly unglamorous depiction of death. When the blue, bloated body of a crew member from Chuck’s crashed flight washes ashore, Chuck moans and contorts his face at the sight of it. Or, when Chuck cuts his hands in another scene, he runs around with his palms toward the camera, splattering blood on the lens and yelling crazily, as if to break through into our space, underlining for us the “realness” of his experience.
At times, Cast Away‘s gimmicky realism is difficult to distinguish from its art. Hanks has talked a lot about his massive weight loss for the part, and the fact that production shut down for a year so he could diet down to his starved appearance in the latter part of the film (announced by the title “4 Years Later”). While the story of how it was made is compelling, the movie itself is somewhat less so. Its initial metaphysical inclination reduces to a fairly simple theme: appreciate what you’ve got because you can lose it at any moment. Chuck will learn this lesson, the hard way. His introduction, pre-crash, during the holiday season rush, establishes him as a proud representative of grandly commercial materialism and, especially pertinent for Chuck, workaholism. He relishes telling his fellow FedEx employees, “Time is our enemy.” He doesn’t even have time to propose properly to his patient girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt). He’s a shock trooper on the corporate front line, a worker for the “If you absolutely positively have to have it there by the next day” people. But with all his attention to staying on time, the movie suggests, Chuck has lost a sense of how to put his time to good use.
When Chuck lands on the deserted island, he is finally forced to rethink his priorities (his focus on his career at the expense of his relationship) and quickly learns that his old value system is inadequate. His main concern is suddenly practical, and his skills in his old life are pretty much irrelevant to survival in his new one. His loss and his new understanding are tellingly represented by a pocket watch Kelly gave him just before his flight. In it he keeps her picture, like a shrine to his hopes for leaving the island, but it no longer keeps time, because time stands still for Chuck. He has nowhere else to be, no schedule to keep, so he just is.
This isolated setting is ripe for commentary on the crassness of civilized culture, but the movie never jettisons its commercial allegiances long enough to explore them from any distance. This is most notably illustrated by Chuck’s continued relationship with his FedEx “family.” In a bit of ironic product placement, FedEx packages wash up on the shore of Chuck’s deserted island and he delicately wipes them off and opens a few, seeking survival tools (he uses the blades on a pair of girls’ skates and the actual tape in a box full of videotapes to cut and bind, for instance). And one box contains a volleyball, which he paints with his own blood to resemble a face, so as to make himself a friend, which he cleverly names “Wilson.” One of the packages, however, he keeps intact. And this one will lead him back to the world, in a roundabout way.
Cast Away‘s fundamental plot turn is, of course, the plane crash—it changes everything. Chuck becomes a better, kinder, more appreciative person because he has no control over this amazing event, and then endures, alone and afraid. All of this is a bit like Forrest Gump winning the Apple stocks lottery—there’s no reason in it, the audience is left to create their own logic. And the film is really about this drive to make sense of chaos, to tell stories, and to create order. Or maybe the most important lesson is this: “Don’t get stranded on a deserted island.”