August 1, 2000 -- Tom Hanks stars as the lone survivor of a plane crash trapped on a tropical island in "Cast Away." While Hanks' performance is masterful in this tale of survival, the movie runs out of steam, and direction, at the end.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, the movie seeks to dramatize what Henry David Thoreau wrote about his experience near Walden Pond in 1854, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Although the film strives mightily to say this, it fails to say it one-quarter as eloquently, proving once again that a word is worth a thousand pictures, if the words are chosen carefully.
Zemeckis' previous wonderful films, "Forrest Gump" and "Contact" were able to make the most of the fact that they seemed to have more of a message than they really did. A good example of that was Forrest Gump's speech to the peace rally in Washington, D.C. Instead of hearing simple, yet profound words about the futility of armed conflict, the public address system is turned off so we don't hear what is said. "Contact" tries to bridge the gap between faith and science without ever really doing it. The movie fakes it.
At some point, however, you can't gloss over the fact that you don't have a message. At some point, you can't fake it. I keep thinking of a better scene from another Tom Hanks movie, "Joe Versus the Volcano," when Hanks is trapped on a makeshift life raft made of expensive luggage, floating on the ocean. There's a remarkable scene where Hanks staggers to his feet, awed by the glory of a rising moon above a calm sea. I got more of a sense of the direction this movie was trying to take me from that one scene than I did from the entirety of "Cast Away" (why is this not one word?).
Nevertheless, Oscar-winner Hanks gives a tour de force performance as Chuck Noland, a Federal Express efficiency expert. Noland is one of those people who Thoreau would say is leading a life of "quiet desperation." He rushes off to all parts of the world, but never seems to be getting anywhere. So frantic is the pace of his life, he doesn't even have time to propose to his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (played by another Oscar winner, Helen Hunt) before hopping that fateful flight. "I'll be right back," he promises.
After a horrific plane crash, which is superbly crafted by the way, Noland washes up on the shore of a small island. There, he is forced to confront the essential facts of life. He needs to find food and water and shelter to survive. More than that, he needs to find hope that someday he can rejoin the rest of the human race. Hanks shows us pain, despair, even madness as he starts talking to a volleyball he calls Wilson. He seems to have no reason to live. His despair is almost palpable, but the lowliest of civilized artifacts washes ashore, giving him hope of escape.
The final act of the film seems rushed, bittersweet and inconclusive. There's a meager attempt at a message, "I have to keep breathing," but it is not soul satisfying. It seems more like another attempt to sidestep a message rather than make one. The message seems to reveal a spiritual and literary poverty of yawning proportions. Thoreau, who found such riches when he mined this same subject 150 years ago, looms like a giant over Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr., who are, in the end, left standing at a crossroads with nothing much to say, except that Noland survived.
William Faulkner had a great deal more about the human condition to say when he accepted the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949. He said, "It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
Faulkner knew this, as did Steinbeck and Thoreau and many others. It seems Hollywood does not; if it ever did, it has forgotten it. "Cast Away" is a testament to man's will to survive, but it goes no further than that. There is nothing in it that indicates human beings, even one with the towering talent of Tom Hanks, is anything more than an animal with a penchant for breathing. I think that is the reason it seemed like nothing much happened in this film and why I felt so empty after watching it. The film rates a C.
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