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Cast Away   B+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: William Broyles Jr.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Nick Searcy.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

The waves are laughing at him, making a mockery of his human weakness. Chuck Noland, a chubby systems engineer from Federal Express, won't be slopping down any more Christmas dinners for a while -- the potatoes and gravy, the cooked yams, the sweetmeats and the fat slice of apple pie with a wedge of ice cream.

Nossir. It's a rough road ahead, so he'd better hope he can crack those coconuts, catch a fish, maybe light a fire. Do you know how to light a fire without matches, reader? Even if you do know, in theory, do you really know?

We all know the plot, right? The trailers have been all over the place, unfairly giving away vast quantities of information (such as answering whether or not Chuck will make it off the island, and how). We know that he leaves behind his fiancée, a beautiful Ph.D. student (Helen Hunt, Pay It Forward). Her memory is held sacred by a golden watch, her family heirloom, with her lovely photograph inside.

One can forgive the movie for this convenient prop -- after all, Chuck needs something to keep his hopes and dreams alive besides Wilson, the volleyball he befriends. A nice touch: Wilson's indifferent face is created by Chuck's bloody handprint. Every time Chuck bleeds, whether cutting his feet on rocks or coral (or dealing with that nasty toothache), we wince. Thus, Wilson is born.

Cast Away has garnered tremendous and well-earned praise for the scenes where Chuck, played by our favorite everyman Tom Hanks, does what he has to do to survive. While they have singled out Hanks' remarkable performance (whenever an actor loses weight for a role, or grows a bushy beard when he didn't have one before, they are said to be remarkable), they mostly latch on to the logic of his actions. How does he eat? How does he make fire? How does he build shelter?

Those scenes are fascinating, more because we identify with Tom Hanks the same way we latch on to Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. He's a normal guy, not a hero. (That's still not the main reason I enjoyed Cast Away.)

It's Hanks' subtle acting in moments that are given time to play themselves out -- like the scene immediately after he washes ashore. A long moment is spent on Hanks just sitting there, in shock, not moving. Eventually, he gets up and staggers along the beach, picking up FedEx packages that have washed ashore. In moments of crisis or paralyzing fear, it's good to go through a routine, something familiar, something you can catch hold of. I must say this was terribly easy to identify with.

Those small moments work best. The big ones, too, sure -- building fire is cool.

Another major point: credit should be given for visual storytelling without dialogue. Oh, Hanks talks to his volleyball and laughs at the Gods occasionally, but much of the time he's silent. He thankfully has no heartfelt monologue about his lost love, which would be ridiculous. Instead, we see Tom Hanks as he attempts to survive. Information is shown, not told. This is surprisingly rare in motion pictures.

A review of Cast Away cannot ignore the drawn out opening scenes or the underwhelming finale. They are much too dull to discuss here, since the only reason to bother with this film, really, is "Tom Hanks as Robinson Crusoe." However, to be fair, there is admirable restraint in the writing and performances, though not in the staggering "irony" which smacks you around like a boxer.

If the stuff on the island is very, very good, let us at least admit that everything else could have been a lot worse. I mean, Ron Howard could have directed it, right?

Review published 01.19.2001.

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