The phenomenon of CBS television's "Survivor" made it clear that
     producer-star Tom Hanks, director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter
     William Broyles, Jr. were prescient when they jointly undertook the feature
CAST AWAY. Centering on an anal retentive Federal Express employee
     named Chuck Noland (Hanks) who survives a plane crash only to wash up
     on a deserted island, the movie will undoubtedly be another highlight in the
     actor's career as well as holding appeal to the millions who followed the
     TV saga and are in withdrawal. For much of the middle section of the movie
     it is a one-man show with Hanks center stage as his character struggles
     to survive on the island with his wits, and a few FedEx boxes that have
     washed up.

             The conceit is that Noland is an efficiency expert and he is introduced
     in Moscow trying to train the locals in the necessity of clock-watching so
     that the company can meet its goals. He's obviously successful, a bit out
     of shape, and involved with graduate student Kelly (Helen Hunt). Their                  
      relationship appears to be one in which they more or less orbit one another
     with occasional meetings -- and those are scheduled. On Christmas Day,
     during dinner with Kelly's relatives, Chuck is paged and off he goes,
     promising to return by New Year's. On the way to the airport, he and
     Kelly exchange presents: she gives him a pocket watch with her photo
     inside, he gives her what is obviously an engagement ring, although he
     asks her to wait until his return before opening it.

             Over the Pacific Ocean, the flight experiences turbulence, and the
     plane crash sequence is harrowing, marred only by Zemeckis' unnecessary
     focus on the pocket watch. Frankly, with all the films that have depicted
     airline disasters, I cannot recall one that captures the sheer terror of the
     minutes before the plane hits the water in quite the way this one does.
     One of the film's defects is that once he has been beached on the island,
     Noland seems to know exactly what to do in any given situation. I can go
     with the flow, but either I missed something in the early scenes or nothing
     was said to give the audience the impression he would know exactly what
     to do. While these implausibilities mount up, there's one of those
     amusing, "only in the movies" moment when a few FedEx boxes eventually
     make their way to shore and contain materials useable for survival. (Ice
     skates are used as all-purpose cutting tools, the tulle overskirt of a dress
     becomes a fishnet, etc.)

             Broyles and Zemeckis make the bold choice in this section not
     to use any background score and little dialogue, keeping the focus
     squarely on Hanks. While another writer or director might cut to
     Hunt's character at home,
CAST AWAY shows only what happens to
     Hanks' Chuck Noland. The actor at least manages to sustain the audience's
     attention as his ever-resourceful screen alter ego goes native. In order
     to preserve his sanity, he keeps the photo of Kelly in the watch handy
     and uses it as a spur when he becomes discouraged.

             Perhaps the oddest choice, and one that did not completely work
     for me, was the use of a volleyball as a sort of totem. After injuring his
     hand, Chuck does what some men do -- screams and takes out his anger
     on whatever is around, hurling the volleyball with his injured hand. The
     bloodstain forms a sort of face and Chuck creates a companion he dubs
     "Wilson" (after the brand of sporting goods). While it is understandable
     that he might want something on which to project his feelings, the site
     of Hanks speaking to a bloody hand print on a volleyball was a bit difficult
     to accept. It gets even worse after the film skips ahead four years.

             By that point, Hanks' physical transformation (accomplished by a
     suspension in production to allow the actor to safely lose weight and grow
     a beard) is astonishing. Looking like an Old Testament figure, Noland finally
     decides to build a raft and sail to civilization once half of a plastic
     Port-o-Potty washes up. He sets about building a raft and storing
     provisions and then sets sail for civilization. (Why it took him four years
     to consider leaving the island is never addressed.) As with the plane crash
     scenes, the sequence of Noland on the raft is both harrowing and
     fascinating to watch, but Noland's preoccupation with "Wilson" becomes
     a bit grating.

             Once Chuck returns home,
CAST AWAY completely falls apart.
     The resolution to Chuck's Lazarus-like situation is handled in a sugarcoated
      and not wholly believable fashion. His reunion with Kelly, which by all
      counts should be emotionally involving, doesn't ring true. Her dispassionate
      reaction seems out of character, and the audience is left feeling cheated.
      (It doesn't help that Hunt underplays the role and she has no chemistry
      with her leading man.) Hanks beautifully delivers a monologue about
     survival and having lost the woman he loves not once but twice
     (undoubtedly this scene will his Oscar clip when he receives the inevitable
     Best Actor nomination). Indeed, those few moments have more of an
     emotion impact than any of his scenes with Hunt. (Perhaps it might
     have been more effective to tell and not show in this case.)

             While the film ends on an ambiguous note,
CAST AWAY suffers
     too much from obviousness. Zemeckis' direction is often heavy-handed
     (portentous close-ups of objects that telegraph their intentions), and
     almost none of the supporting players really register as full-bodied
     characters. It is virtually a one-man show, but, for the most part, Hanks
     rises to the challenge. Except for the dialogue to the volleyball (and I
     cannot think of any actor living or dead who could have pulled that off
CAST AWAY showcases a performer at the top of his game.

 Rating:        B
Cast Away
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.