Before All Is Lost, before Life of Pi, before Lost, there came Cast Away. While not the first film about an island-bound survivor, it is the most emotionally powerful, all thanks to actor extraordinaire Tom Hanks. He poured quite a bit of time and commitment into the role of Chuck Noland, first gaining weight in order to look like a chubby executive, then spending a year getting starkly thin with a full beard for the later island scenes. Many actors are at their best not saying a word, and his struggles against the surf, coconuts, and personal pain fill the long stretches of silence on the island with fascinating desperation and ingenuity.
I love the layers and hints sprinkled throughout the beginning: the Elvis connections, the ranch sign later seen partially missing, the underlying story of divorce playing out behind the scenes and waiting to become relevant to Chuck Noland, even the little copier dance with Chuck and Kelly (Helen Hunt). After a harrowing plane crash (with a scene of Chuck hanging underwater to watch sinking debris, which has been borrowed by Life of Pi and The Incredibles), Chuck is stranded on an isle not nearly as hospitable as Gilligan’s Island. While there are no wild animals or headhunters, there’s also nothing to attract distant search parties, nothing to encourage his eroding sanity, not even a single sound from an insect or a background score. He is alone. The audience is pulled into Chuck’s solitary struggle to sympathize with his loneliness, celebrate his small victories, and meet a volleyball named Wilson. (Despite all the product placement with FedEx and Wilson sporting goods, the film never feels like a commercial, instead simply using these familiar names as integral aspects of the story.)
By the time he escapes his island prison, Hanks had already earned his Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but his reaction to his subsequent loss should have clinched a win. (I think Hanks should have won, and Russell Crowe could have won the next year for A Beautiful Mind.) It’s a perfect example of how the loss of a “character” or even an inanimate object can deeply affect the audience simply by how it affects another character. I didn’t care about Wilson; he’s just a volleyball, but he was also Noland’s only friend. Hanks’s performance makes the loss far sadder than many a human death in other movies. Now that is acting!
The film is not quite perfect; despite repeated angelic symbolism, the film has no religious perspective on Noland’s plight, and a scene in which he buries a dead pilot is rather brusque in its lack of sentiment. Yet Cast Away works on many levels, not only as a story of forlorn seclusion; it’s a beautifully shot adventure, an example of the many survivalist uses of ice skates and evening gowns, a testament to the power of hope and endurance, a meditation on the simple conveniences we so often take for granted, and a lamentation of how life goes on and sometimes leaves us behind. Plus, it was the inspiration for Lost, at least in part. The suggestion of a Cast Away television series led to J. J. Abrams’ great show four years later, and it even bears a few familiar elements (a plane crash, a failed SOS; if Noland had looked harder, he might have found a hatch or a smoke monster). In many ways, Cast Away could easily have been titled Lost, best represented by the four-way dirt road in its final scene. As Alan Silvestri’s short but lovely score plays, it seems Noland has found his way; I’m not partial to many ambiguous and open-ended conclusions, but Cast Away’s is one of the best.
Best line: (Chuck Noland, to Wilson, as he is attempting to light a fire) “You wouldn’t have a match by any chance, would you?”Rank: 59 out of 60
© 2015 S. G. Liput
281 Followers and Counting