I’ve been looking forward to Cast Away for a long time — I know a lot of people have been. As several readers and friends have said to me, this is one of those films that you just have to hope will be great. Nobody doesn’t like Tom Hanks, right? And the idea of throwing America’s Official Nicest Guy onto a remote island and watching him fend for himself is one that has captured the imagination of movie buffs. So, please, let it be terrific.
I am very happy to report that Cast Away is terrific. And touching and smart and willing to grant the audience a modicum of intelligence. I will never again be able to look at a purple and orange FedEx logo and not think about Tom Hanks and Cast Away. This is an unforgettable film, full of imagery and emotion that lingers, one that far exceeds even the high expectations that accompany it.
Aren’t you relieved?
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks: The Green Mile, Toy Story 2) is a FedEx employee, a systems engineer who is a virtual, if willing, slave to the company, and to the clock. “We never allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time,” he tells employees in a FedEx shipping office who are a bit too laid back for his and the company’s demanding needs. So Chuck is perhaps even more discombobulated than you or I might be when a FedEx courier flight on which he is a passenger tanks into the middle of the Pacific, washing him up on a tiny island, alone. And clockless.
Guaranteed, Cast Away will never be Your In-flight Movie Today. The crash is one of the most intense, most terrifying I’ve ever seen on film, though it is, ironically, all the more terrifying because so little of it can be seen. It’s a violent nighttime storm that forces the plane down, so when Chuck, the only survivor, surfaces in the rough seas, there’s little to no warning as fiery wreckage bobs at him and huge swells batter him, and much of that is only briefly illuminated by flashes of lightning.
But more disconcerting than the actual crash is the feeling of how utterly wrong such an event is. A few years ago, a FedEx plane caught fire on the tarmac at Newark Airport, and I remember how unsettling a thing that was — it wasn’t that people had gotten hurt (as I recall, the crew evacuated safely) but that all those nice white boxes with their purple and orange logos had burned to a crisp. That’s not supposed to happen — FedEx planes simply do not crash. How can they? FedEx promised to absolutely, positively deliver my package overnight. The very idea is absurd, like saying that Santa Claus disappeared off radar somewhere around Point Barrow. FedEx and their agreeable employees are so damn reliable… so to see one of their missions so abruptly interrupted, it’s all the more disturbing than if, say, it was a U.S. Postal Service flight that went down.
The use of the FedEx brand name is much more than mere product placement — it’s so integral to the film that it’s impossible to imagine any other name that could substitute. Chuck is so defined by his job that, as FedEx boxes start to wash up on the beach the morning after the crash, he collects them. And sorts them. And considers them so inviolate that he doesn’t open them. Director Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath, Contact) and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (Entrapment, Apollo 13) build quite a suspenseful story out of the peculiarities of Chuck’s character: How long will it be before he opens those boxes? How long before the basic human need to survive by any means overcomes the veneer of civilization represented by his sense of professionalism?
Cast Away is an incredibly daring film for a major studio to take on — which is perhaps why two, DreamWorks and Fox, shared the risk. By the time a lesser Hollywood film would have had the Harlem Globetrotters washing up on the beach, Chuck is still trying desperately to make fire. The film is, almost entirely, Tom Hanks alone on an island, with nothing but the relentless sound of the surf for company — there is no background music and what little dialogue there is comes in Chuck’s attempts to retain his sanity by conversing with a soccer ball he dubs Wilson (another bit of product placement that goes way beyond advertising). It’s unlikely this film would have been made without the involvement of an actor of Hanks’s stature and mass appeal, nor without his advocacy from the very beginning — the idea for Cast Away is Hanks’s own; he developed it with Broyles, and he also serves as a producer.
As admirably restrained as the directing is, and as sensitive as the script is, Cast Away was always Hanks’s to win or lose. And he wins it, triumphantly. From the poignant irony he imbues into Chuck’s last words to his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt: Pay It Forward, Twister) — “I’ll be right back” — to Chuck’s shocking transformation, both physical and psychological, in the four years he is stranded, Hanks creates an eerie and discomforting portrait of loneliness and the deep-seated need for human contact. It’s a performance free of any hint of the gosh-darn, uncomplicated niceness that had been threatening to limit Hanks as an actor, and Hanks is ultimately what makes Cast Away a tremendously moving film about the things that make us human, and the things we cling to in order to retain our humanity.