"Cast Away" proves a number of things, all of them good. It proves that Tom Hanks is indisputably the surest, most dependable -- if not the best -- actor of his generation. It proves that director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Contact") can make a great film, one that doesn't rely on gimmicks or trickery.
And it proves that a volleyball can command the screen like no one thought possible.
"Cast Away" -- and that two-word, not one-word, title is key to understanding this film -- takes the worlds of "Gilligan's Island" and "Robinson Crusoe" and blows them apart. It affords a look at what really could happen to a man stuck alone on a remote island, with little to survive on save his wits. It offers pretty much a one-man show for Hanks, who spends about 100 of the film's 140 minutes alone on screen, yet manages to sustain both the audience's affection and, more importantly, its attention.
And it just may be the major-studio release of 2000, a welcome salve in a year that saw Hollywood at its most creatively bankrupt. Who would've thought a man with a four-year growth of beard and a deflated volleyball for a best friend would ride to the rescue?
Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx systems engineer for whom time is an enemy that must be vanquished ASAP. The film opens with him in Moscow, berating the local FedEx people there, who don't seem to understand that time is of the essence in their line of work. Noland is abrasive and he drives them hard, but he's a wiz at making the trucks run on time.
Back home in Memphis, Noland is about to celebrate Christmas with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt, with just a trace of a Southern accent), when his beeper goes off: He's needed, in some far-off country. Unhesitatingly, and with the unquestioning understanding of Kelly, he's off, with the promise that he'll be back in time for New Year's Eve.
This setup, and the relationship between Noland and Frears, is just the first of many wise decisions from Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. (no doubt with considerable input from Hanks, who's listed as one of the film's producers). It would have been easy to portray Noland as a jerk, to saddle him and Frears with a tempestuous relationship, and thus make subsequent events seem somehow justified -- not to mention maudlin. A lesser script would have had him storming out of their apartment after a fight, leaving him with even more to regret while stranded on that tropical South Seas island.
For that's exactly where he ends up after his plane crashes (in a truly terrifying sequence that will make people think twice about flying over water). Now, Noland is no survivalist, but he's smart enough to keep his wits about him. It also turns out he's lucky to have worked for FedEx, since several packages that wash ashore with him provide odds and ends -- videotapes, a pair of ice skates, a formal dress, a volleyball -- that will prove invaluable in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Especially the volleyball, which gets itself a painted face and a name (Wilson) and becomes Noland's only island companion.
Noland's introduction to the island marks good decision number two: For roughly 45 minutes, Hanks is on screen alone, rarely talking, but single-mindedly struggling to carve a place for himself in his new home. After a disastrous attempt at rafting back out to sea, Noland reverts to the problem-solving mode that had served him so well at FedEx. Almost wordlessly (he's obviously not a man who talks just to hear the sound of a voice), Noland learns to skin coconuts, to trap rainwater in leaves, to fashion shoes out of available materials.
Noland is not simply a castaway -- that would put him on a level with Gilligan and the Skipper. Rather, he has been cast away: from civilization, from companionship, from clocks, from conveniences. And if he's to survive, Noland must also cast away his reliance on such things, while retaining hope of some day reuniting with them.
Zemeckis increases our identification with Noland by keeping his camera either at eye level or lower; in effect, we become his companion on the island. We're not so much watching what happens as experiencing it along with him.
Then four years pass, and Noland is still on the island. He's talking a lot more (to Wilson) and surviving a lot more easily. Much of his time has been spent gazing at the single photograph of Kelly he brought with him or painting crude likenesses of her on cave walls.