A distressing yet uplifting survival drama, Cast Away is an irresistible story of one man who loses everything except his life, and has to find the willingness to endure an unimaginable ordeal.
Based in Memphis, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is a middle-aged FedEx manager, dedicated to work and worshiping the clock as he globe trots to help FedEx employees in far-flung corners of the world get better at delivering parcels on time. With Christmas approaching, Chuck proposes to his long-time girlfriend and love of his life Kelly (Helen Hunt), and boards a FedEx plane for a transpacific flight. The plane hits severe weather, diverts course and then ditches into the ocean; Chuck is the only survivor, and his life raft drifts onto a small uninhabited island in the South Pacific.
Completely alone and with no rescue in sight, Chuck has to survive by starting with the basics, including finding water, food, shelter and fire. Every step on the way to daily survival is a struggle, and every achievement, like opening a fruit or finally starting a fire, takes an inordinate amount of time and is a major victory. He also collects FedEx packages from the wreckage that wash up on the beach, and eventually yields to the need to open them. The contents aid his survival efforts, and a Wilson volleyball becomes his only companion. Time passes slowly, but Chuck’s desire to somehow return to civilization remains strong.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by William Broyles, Jr., Cast Away is a gripping survival story told with plenty of warmth. The film steers clear of any unnecessary drama and theatrics, and sticks close to a powerful central premise: how would a middle-aged, slightly pudgy man, used to all the comforts of modern civilization, survive on his own in the wilderness?
Chuck is not a scientist nor an outdoorsman. He does not know the first thing about survival skills, and this ordinariness is what makes Cast Away compelling. Broyles keeps the fight even and fair: the new environment presents no unusual threats. The worst that the island offers is severe rainstorms and total isolation. There are no wild animals, dangerous tribesmen or even deadly insects, just a generally docile piece of beach, rock and forest jutting out of the ocean, that Chuck now needs to turn into a home.
The theme of time is central to Chuck’s story. A man used to measuring life’s success and failure by the minute, and who defines achievement by the daily on-time delivery of millions of packages across the world, is now forced to confront the fact that prying open a piece of stubborn tropical fruit will take a day of his time, and lighting a fire will require a lot longer than that. His life is stripped down to the essentials of survival, bereft of most tools that he takes for granted. Suddenly time takes on a new meaning: he is in a race to secure the necessities of life, and failure is not a corporate reputational risk, but a matter of real and personal living and dying.
Tom Hanks is on his own for the majority of the 143 minutes of running time, and he owns the screen, starting out as a confident manager, then a disoriented crash victim, and finally a man carving out a new definition of existence. Hanks is fully believable in every phase, and undergoes a remarkable physical transformation to reflect the impact of his island ordeal.
Zemeckis finds many highlights, including a stunning airplane crash sequence, a triumph with the rediscovery of fire, and interaction between Chuck and Wilson that creates a remarkable sidekick character out of a volleyball. The closing chapter drags a bit, but Chuck does deserve the appropriate time to reflect on what life can now offer. The Don Burgess cinematography is vivid and brings the island and the ocean to glorious life, while Alan Silvestri contributes a music score than is affecting if a bit schmaltzy.
Cast Away is both a heartbreaking story of loss, and a marvelous celebration of the human ability to adapt and survive even in traumatic conditions.