Worth A Look: 41.58%
Just Average: 14.52%
Pretty Crappy: 5.94%
18 reviews, 195 user ratings
by Andrew Howe
In 1994 I expressed my concern that Tom Hanks, who had only recently turned his attention to dramatic roles, would be incapable of discharging all that was required of him in Forrest Gump. One Academy Award later, he proved that my crystal ball possessed the precognitive abilities of a dime-store snow globe.In 1998 I entertained the notion that Hanks was not a fit and proper person to portray a leader of men in Saving Private Ryan, since his lack of charisma would make it impossible to credit his performance. One Academy Award nomination later, he proved that my misgivings were well and truly unfounded.
"My Island Home (is waiting for me)"
In 1999 I fretted that the shoes of The Green Mileís Paul Edgecombe, a character about whom I had formed certain preconceptions from reading the novel, were larger than Hanks could conceivably fill. One unassuming and deeply affecting performance later, my career as a Casting Director was placed on permanent hold.
In 2000 I suggested that Hanks, whose personality could never be described as forceful, would not be able to maintain viewer interest throughout the extended solo sequences promised by the advance publicity for Cast Away. And if you guessed that Hanks made me look like the village idiot once again, then you evidently possess greater foresight than I.
Some people, as they say, never learn. Hanks, on the other hand, has learned that there are certain roles to which he is suited, and invariably manages to pluck the gems from the avalanche of offers he presumably receives. Not that the lead in Cast Away could be considered anything less than an actorís dream Ė after all, with few other characters to distract attention from the star, you donít have to worry about being overshadowed by your support. The only thing you might end up playing second-fiddle to is the scenery, but since David Lean has retired to a place where even his agent canít reach him youíre probably on fairly safe ground.
The house that Zemeckis and Hanks built, however, was erected on ground which was anything but. A Hanks film is the closest thing to a sure thing these days, but the premise was far enough into the left field that success was by no means certain. Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a Fed Ex employee who divides his time between travel, his girlfriend (Helen Hunt), and haranguing his subordinates about the importance of time. A plane crash earns him a four-year stint on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, and the bulk of the filmís running time is consumed by his quest for survival. It sounds more like an uninspired retread of Robinson Crusoe than the makings of a masterpiece (which it isnít, but it comes closer than most), and its success can be laid at the door of two very wise decisions: casting Hanks in the lead, and choosing a script (by William Broyles Jr, whose notable credits to date consist solely of Apollo 13) which concentrates on the emotional and psychological ramifications of the situation (as opposed to, say, turning it into a comedy or a boyís-own adventure).
Much has been made of the fact that many scenes feature no music or dialogue, concentrating solely on Nolandís efforts to eke out a living amidst his inhospitable surroundings (the island may look like paradise, but the absence of freshwater streams and other amenities ensures that, like so many things in life, its attractive exterior masks a depressingly hollow centre). These sequences arenít exactly the cinematic equivalent of a Marcel Marceau performance, but they were still a gamble (at least for a big-budget motion picture), since, outside of sketch comedy, solo performances peppered with occasional dialogue have the potential to become decidedly soporific. However, it works by virtue of viewer identification with the situation: you constantly ask yourself what you would do in a similar situation, since itís a notion anyone bred on a diet of Swiss Family Robinson and Gilliganís Island has entertained on occasion. Itís an intriguing concept, but when reality collides with fantasy it always ends in tears - do you know how to open a coconut with a stone, or start a fire with a couple of sticks? I certainly donít, and neither does Noland, and anyone who needs zero fingers to count their Boy Scout patch collection will be captivated by his trial-and-error approach to wilderness survival.
Those expecting eye-catching cinematography will not be disappointed, as scenic-postcard shots of pristine beaches and swaying palms are contrasted with Hanksí gradual deterioration. The ocean is a constant companion to the proceedings, and it appears inviting, but it is effectively Nolandís captor, and the razor-sharp coral that waits beneath its surface is yet another testament to the heartbreak caused by deceptive appearances. When itís not busy tantalising the senses, the film also provides welcome relief from the daily grind through two exceptional action sequences, one of which has few equals in its terrifying depiction of an aviation disaster (I am never taking my shoes off during a flight again).
The film is enhanced immeasurably by Hanksí performance, which is definitely award material. Despite Nolandís fanatical commitment to his job, Hanksí natural affability ensures that the early character-building scenes achieve their purpose, which is to convince the viewer that Nolandís survival is a cause for concern. Once the action shifts to the island Hanks cranks it up a notch, to the extent that you never doubt Nolandís predicament for a second. Hanksí ďtrainingĒ for the role (which appears to have consisted of running himself into the ground for 12 months) pays dividends in the form of an utterly convincing portrayal Ė some performances you admire, but others you believe, and there is no doubt on which side of the fence his efforts fall.
The supporting players are left to orbit around Hanksí brilliance, with only Helen Hunt rising above cameo status. Iíve never been a fan (like Ed OíNeill, it will be many years before she breaks free of the preconceptions fostered by her extended sojourn on the small screen) but thereís nothing to complain about with her portrayal of a willing participant in a part-time love affair, and a couple of emotional scenes prove that a few more dramatic roles may not be a bad thing.
And emotional scenes is something Cast Away has in spades. It is by no means a happy film (at times itís downright depressing), and it raises questions about the negative effects of solitude, the way in which having a single thing to believe in can be enough to get you through the night, and the bonding potential inherent in inanimate objects. It also features two powerful scenes dealing with relationships and loss, the first of which qualifies as one of the most uniquely wrenching movie moments I have ever witnessed.
The effects of isolation are obviously central to the filmís concerns, and while itís not going to be used as a case study for budding psychologists it does a fine job of charting the effects of years spent without human contact. The importance of our relationships with our fellow man cannot be overestimated, for one could argue that our ďtrueĒ personalities are submerged beneath forced conformity and the need for approval, while the fear of being alone is a feature of many a childhood nightmare. The film doesnít actually explore these issues in any great depth, but then it is hamstrung by the fact that Noland has no-one to express his feelings to. However, we donít necessarily need Noland to tell us what heís going through, because his actions and physical appearance leave little doubt as to the mental effects of his trials (in addition, the film does eventually find a way to allow him to speak, but itís so artfully conceived that itís difficult to complain too loudly). The filmís approach does have its limitations, but it still serves up ample food for thought within the constraints imposed by the premise and the scriptís admirable refusal to explore Nolandís inner torment through long-winded speeches, voiceovers, journals or other inappropriate devices.
The other aspect of the narrative which arguably warranted greater attention was the section dealing with Nolandís first year on the island. The script makes a somewhat jarring jump from the early days to the four-year mark, and while Hanksí sudden transformation ensures that it is an arresting sequence, it dilutes the weight of the years. Four years is a long time, and another half-hour depicting Nolandís solitude and enlightening us as to exactly how he filled in his time on an average day would have rammed home the debilitating effects of boredom and deprivation (having neglected to pack his desert-island books, thereís very little to occupy his mind). On the other hand, the film already runs for 143 minutes with practically no filler, so such a move may well have stretched viewer patience to the breaking point (Wim Wenders would argue that itís the price of creating a masterpiece, but thatís just him).
In any event, the film still deserves praise for its depiction of Nolandís years on the road to nowhere, especially given that he appears to achieve very little (the absence of the Professor ensures thereís no spa baths constructed from bamboo and coconut shells). I am also pleased to report that the film works its way to a truly satisfying conclusion Ė Hollywood schmaltz is definitely off the menu, and the one chance to ruin an otherwise laudable effort is deftly avoided.Cast Away partners a fine script with a skilled actor, and the result is a film that soars above the standard big-budget Hollywood fare. It never hangs its hat on a single aspect of the story, mixing mild humour with high drama; slow-moving, meditative scenes with high-powered action sequences; and rays of hope with the depths of despair. Occasionally thought-provoking, often touching, and always absorbing, it reminds us that a simple story well-told is the cornerstone of many a fine film, and that shooting from the hip, enjoyable though it may be, is never the equal of speaking from the heart.
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originally posted: 01/13/01 23:51:14