Robert Zemeckis, the mainstream-populist visionary who made Forrest Gump and Contact, is an extremely accomplished director; his problem these days is that he tries too hard to accomplish a masterpiece every time out. Zemeckis wants to make films for the ages, fables that speak to us about us, about the mysteries of the universe. How he graduated from the pop prankster who made Used Cars, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Back to the Future to the pop shaman who has now made Cast Away is itself one of life’s great mysteries. (Maybe Zemeckis will make a movie about it.)
Tom Hanks, chubby and waddling fast in a winter parka, is Chuck Noland, an efficiency guru who troubleshoots FedEx operations around the world, his voice rising in contempt at the workers’ slowness. Don’t they know they’re FedEx? Let’s go, people! Hanks embodies the sort of modern man for whom every job situation assumes the wired priority of a sucking chest wound; he plays ER in his head, and his personal life gets put in triage. He has little or no time for his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt); rather glumly, they exchange Christmas gifts in his van before Chuck takes off on a flight to shepherd yet another vitally important shipment.
The little plane, as we all know, goes down over the ocean, and the sequence is one of the most wrenching bits of crisis ever filmed. It hits fast and hard, with no warning; even though we know it’s coming, we don’t feel ready for it — we’re thrown into it as rudely and abruptly as Chuck is. Zemeckis uses the technological effects at his disposal to give us each nightmarish detail of the experience right up to the impact. Afterward, when Chuck washes up on a godforsaken rocky island, the director abandons technology but still focuses on the details of Chuck’s survival. Even here, Chuck is a problem-solver; he uses bits of salvaged goodies to make tools, shelter, even a friend named Wilson (a volleyball with a face rendered in blood — a creation saved from too-cuteness by its slight Lord of the Flies aura).
To be honest, the gruelling study of Chuck’s ordeal — it spans over four years — wore out its welcome for me after about half an hour. The built-in problem with movies like this is that you’re stuck out in nowhere along with the character(s); you can’t wait to get home. It needs to be said, though, that Zemeckis’ tranquil control never wavers, and that Hanks takes whatever starch he can out of the primal-man conception. Even when he’s swathed in more beard than the two bearded guys in ZZ Top put together, Hanks comes across as a sane if ornery modern man, even as he’s carrying on animated chats with his volleyball — we accept it as any person’s natural hunger to connect with someone. And he never loses his humor.
Zemeckis and writer William Broyles, Jr. have been planting a few hints, though, and toward the end, after Chuck has returned home, we hear about something that almost happened on the island during those four (offscreen) years. Chuck becomes a figure of endurance, a real chicken-soup-for-the-soul story, and the movie closes up shop about 20 minutes before it ends. Hanks has a remarkable intense, haunted look — it isn’t just his weight loss, though there seem to be new planes and contours to his face — but we never understand how it feels to be back among people who take trivial things seriously after you’ve been spearing fish and talking to a gory volleyball for the length of a presidential term. (It doesn’t help that Broyles’ script contains several glaring set-ups at the beginning that will predictably “pay off” later: a bad tooth, the ailing wife of a co-worker, etc.)
Chuck goes to see Kelly, whose photo kept him alive all that time, but Helen Hunt can’t work up much energy for the occasion; maybe she was dispirited by how few scenes she has. She could play the kind of woman a man would risk death to get back to, but she doesn’t here, and the awkwardness of their late scenes together feels less like realism than like a casting mismatch. Alan Silvestri’s score, which sounds like an unfinished piece of music (most of the movie has none), whines on cue to lock in on Chuck’s pangs of loss. It whines, with a glimmer of hope, when Chuck imparts the moral of the fable: that you have to keep breathing, keep living. The movie takes too long to deliver us this banal package of wisdom, and we know what it is before we open it: a box of chocolates. Tom Hanks’ performance held me, but as written Cast Away is about the great mystery of the human will to survive — and, incidentally, about the great mystery of the mass audience’s will to accept pabulum.