'Cast Away': THR's 2000 Review

Cast Away Still - Photofest - H 2016
Courtesy of Photofest

Cast Away Still - Photofest - H 2016

While the filmmakers come tantalizingly close, the Big Theme eludes their grasp.

On Dec. 22, 2000, Robert Zemeckis' 142-minute survival tale Cast Away hit theaters. The film went on to earn two Oscar nominations at the 73rd Academy Awards, including a mention in the best actor category for Tom Hanks. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Cast Away, an epic tale of survival on an isolated island, clearly wants to be seen as a metaphor for discovering what's truly important in life. But the adventure story is only intermittently successful. And while the filmmakers come tantalizingly close, the Big Theme eludes their grasp. 

Thanks to Tom Hanks' tour de force performance and director Robert Zemeckis' compelling visual design — as well as Helen Hunt in a small but pivotal role — the film possesses plenty of box office clout. A strong opening and critical acclaim, followed by possible Oscar nominations, could lead to an extended theatrical life. But audiences might have a tough time warming to a movie in which loneliness, frustration and despair occupy so much screen time. 

Of course, this is an oft-told tale, going back to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and encompassing The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies and The Blue Lagoon. Such tales of island castaways ask one to rethink the basics of life: water, food, heat and shelter. But invariably one is also asked to ponder the difference between mere survival and living — and to question what it means to be human in the absence of human society. 

William Broyles Jr.'s screenplay follows this well-trod path, but then it pushes into the less-examined territory of coming to terms with a successful survival. Having endured physical and psychological torments in isolation, the hero finds his return to civilization is as fraught with peril as his island existence was. And it is here that the film fails to take full advantage of its theme. 

The film begins in a rush. Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a FedEx systems engineer, jetting off at a moments notice to far-flung corners of the globe to fix problems. He is a man who lives by the clock and who preaches to employees to "never lose track of time."

Zemeckis films the early scenes in Moscow, in Chuck's hometown of Memphis, Tenn., and in airports and airplanes with busy camerawork and actors in motion. Time rules. 

Then, while on a trip to Tahiti, an explosion aboard Chuck's plane causes it to crash into turbulent seas. The film never loses Chuck's point of view during this truly frightening nighttime sequence. In the distressed aircraft and then in rolling seas as he clings to an inflated raft, flashes of lightning reveal to him — and us — a terrifying scene in which survival can only be a fluke. 

But the fluke happens. He washes ashore on an uninhabited volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. As days go by and the possibility of rescue grows remote, he turns his attention to eking out an existence on the picturesque but inhospitable isle. 

The film laboriously tracks the castaway's methodical problem solving. FedEx packages from the ill-fated flight wash ashore, each containing seemingly impractical items such as video tapes and ice skates. But each turns out to be a solution to one of his difficulties. 

Chuck solves his companionship problem by initiating a friendship with a volleyball he calls "Wilson," which comes from one of those stranded packages. Wilson serves not only as a device to let us know what's going on in Chuck's head but also his means of mental survival. 

Then comes the abrupt tile card: "Four Years Later." As has been well publicized, Hanks accomplished the transformation from slightly pudgy bumbler to weather-beaten hardbody by taking a year's hiatus from the production schedule. But Hanks the actor manages an even subtler transformation from a desperate man to one who has given up all hope. He becomes a person who has realized that to survive is not the same thing as to live. 

Eventually, Chuck hits upon a way of getting off the island. After a perilous sea journey in a makeshift raft, he gets rescued. Clean-shaven and much slimmer, Chuck is whisked back to Memphis. Only the movie is now winding down at exactly the point when things get the most interesting. 

What culture shock must Chuck endure? How does he resume his life when family and friends have died, married or moved on? How can he reconnect emotionally with a woman who has believed him dead for four years? And why did Cast Away squander so much time on the island, watching Chuck learn to catch and cook crabs, when the heart of the matter lies in these all-too-brief passages?

Broyles' finest writing is contained in the Memphis scenes, and Hanks and Hunt play them for all their worth. But the film only scratches the surface of the emotional undercurrents at work in these disappointingly brief scenes.

Zemeckis does an excellent job of finding visual means to express Chuck's isolation and thought process. Technically, the film is a marvel — from Don Burgess' inventive camerawork and Alan Silvestri's unobtrusive score to Rick Carter's production design that drives home the helplessness of the castaway's plight. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published in the Dec. 8-10, 2000 issue of THR.