Cast Away (2000)

D: Robert Zemeckis
S: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt

Well-meaning, well-made variant on Robinson Crusoe which provides Tom Hanks with an unparalleled opportunity to stretch his acting legs and allows director Robert Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess set the stage for it. A Fed-Ex supervisor (Hanks) whose life is ruled by clocks and schedules finds himself stranded on a desert island when his plane crashes in an electrical storm. Separated from people, from civilisation, and from his lover (Helen Hunt), he must learn to survive and to adjust to a new conception of himself and his world. Despite impressive technical work all around and earnestness on the part of the star, the result is still nothing more than a variant on Robinson Crusoe, only without the troubling racial politics raised by the presence of a Man Friday, not to mention the character interaction he provided to previous renditions.

Robert Zemeckis has turned a heavy hand to his directorial endeavours in recent years, among them the Hanks vehicle Forrest Gump. In Contact the style matched the subject. In What Lies Beneath one often felt a slim premise was slightly overstretched. In Cast Away he really has lost the plot. This film has a simple premise, a simple theme, and essentially focuses on the day to day activities of a single character. In the hands of a certain type of cineaste, this could work. Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped is a good example. In the hands of Zemeckis and at the bidding of his star (whose brainchild the project apparently was), it is more mundane than it is lyrical and more pedantic than it is poetic.

The film begins in a frantic rush, matching the pace and rhythm of the action to that of the character's life. Unfortunately, it plays more like an extended commercial for Federal Express than it does an introduction to Hanks' milieu. Though we are painfully aware that the script is in fact setting up the concept of connectedness which it will explore in more detail later, it is difficult not to be restless in anticipation of the meatier sections to come, because the point is made quickly, then laboured for far too long. Once he lands on the island, the film slows down, again in a deliberate attempt to match the direction to the drama. While in theory this allows the camera, the actor, and the landscape to begin working their magic together, the result is actually considerably less involving than the film makers have presumed. Burgess and Zemeckis have responded superbly to the technical challenges of shooting this film. It is interesting to see how they have managed to work around the physical conditions on Fiji, and the film does have a certain visual splendour. Yet all of this is in the service of what amounts to a comparatively bland story of isolation and disconnection in which Hanks fumbles about with sodden Fed-Ex packages and eventually befriends a volleyball. There is a theme running through it, of course, but again the point is made quickly and then laboured.

Curiously, despite abandoning the racial trappings of Robinson Crusoe, the film replicates its colonial/capitalist attitude. The fascination with brand names (Fed-Ex, the volleyball is named Wilson after the company who manufactured it, there's a dentist named Spalding etc.), and the general story goes to prove, like Crusoe, that a resourceful imperial can overcome nature if he puts his mind to it. Yes the film attempts to explore the psychological duress under which the character labours and yes it works hard to present the details of his survival in almost documentary terms, but it still amounts to nothing more than what DaFoe had to say over a century ago and is often a lot less. The film's final section attempts to bring the action full circle and examine the consequences of what has happened to its hero, but once again the action simply takes too long when the basic points are made within minutes. An attempt at a wistfully reflective finale falls short.

Part of the problem here is that Hanks is not an interesting enough actor to sustain the core of the action. His range of facial expressions is limited and he seems to spend most of the time simply staring moodily into space. Realism it may be on some level, but drama this is not. In the absence of interaction with other characters, he does not have sufficient resources to hold the viewer's attention. He tries hard to make it work, has one or two good moments, and undergoes an astonishing physical transformation for the final section (production was halted while he did it), but all the film does is show his limitations more clearly than ever. Ambition and commitment do not amount to a great performance, and despite what is obviously a perfect showcase, Hanks is not up to the challenge which Burgess and Zemeckis have attempted to meet with good old fashioned workmanship.

Most viewers will be pretty bored with Cast Away. Unless you're a big Tom Hanks fan or have never seen anything of the kind before, this simple tale of a man stranded on a desert island will not hold your attention as consistently as it needs to. There was probably enough material here for a short. Film buffs may find something of interest in it in terms of studying its technical qualities (though they'll inevitably remember better versions of the same thing). But general audiences should be advised that there's less here than meets the eye. The film takes a long time getting nowhere that wasn't obvious from the outset and the journey there is just not that worthwhile despite the best intentions of its makers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.