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Cast Away

Starring Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
Screenplay by William Broyles Jr.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

IN SHORT: Ultimate Survivor. No story. [Rated PG-13 for some intense images and action sequences. 145 minutes]

Tom Hanks makes a movie. Tom Hanks gets an Oscar nomination. Gee, where's the suspense? We put that right up top because Hanks' performance is as good as you've heard. The movie that wraps itself around that performance, isn't.

If Cast Away didn't star someone of the caliber of Tom Hanks, we doubt you'd be banging down the door for a ticket. Yeah, we've been wrong about statements like that before, all critics are, but Cast Away is the kind of project that gets made because a star pushes and fights and claws through all the barriers in the way to get it made. Hanks had to fight, aided by his Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis because, honestly, all Cast Away is is a two hour long acting class exercise that, when finished, leaves the film wondering what to do about its story. The story that's left is so slim that half of it was spilled in the advertising trailers and spots. If you've seen those you've got a 50/50 shot at figuring out the rest.

The basics: Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a Systems Engineer for Federal Express. A real Company Man who flies all over the world at the drop of a hat, Moscow to Malaysia, setting up or fine tuning new offices in the ever growing empire that was FedEx in 1995. Based in Memphis where his girlfriend Kelly is working on her doctoral thesis, Chuck's life is good but hectic. It's just about time to settle down but a carefully constructed Christmas Eve scenario goes awry when his pager goes off, summoning him to somewhere near Tahiti.

Why a FedEx plane flying from Memphis to Tahiti has packages bound for Texas on it is just one of the slipshod points that don't start blaring off screen until the final credits roll. Just one of several irritating and under thought bits that sink what had been a pretty good ride.

Needless to say, Chuck's plane never gets where it is going and, in the best crash sequence of any kind since The Fugitive, the man finds himself a sole survivor on a tropical island at least 200 miles outside of the search area. He can wait. He can wait some more. He can play with the FedEx packages that wash up on shore and he can look at the picture of his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) in the antique pocket watch she gave him for Christmas. Then he must survive.

Here's the acting class scenario: Actor goes into an empty room. Three objects on a table. With no direction he's told to make something happen. In Hanks' case, he's got the talent to do so and the aid of director Zemeckis. With necessity being the mother of invention, Chuck invents as best he can. He learns to build tools to help him hunt and fish. He must dredge up all the teaching of long lost boy scout days and try to make fire and collect water. He must survive. And while there is no native named Friday, there is a sidekick called Wilson which (not who) keeps Chuck about as sane as four years of isolation will allow. When he gets off the island, and returns to his home in Memphis and the eventual reunion with girlfriend Kelly, it all falls apart.

With the exception of a plane crash sequence which leaves Hanks stranded on the tropical isle -- we haven't seen an accident this dramatic since The Fugitive, Cast Away is all about survival. Were that all we were to get, the film would be a passable rental. The script doesn't give you any indication of how Hanks' character has changed from his years in isolation. We skip four weeks once he is rescued. We miss any emotional impact of Chuck's reacquaintance with the pleasures of civilization. If you've ever been deprived of something as simple as a shower for a couple of months (like Cranky) let alone a couple of years (like Hank's Chuck) trust us, it's something to be greatly appreciated. It is something to be seen.

Once Chuck is reunited with Kelly, and we won't spill details, we didn't buy it. Sorry kidlets, if you've been deprived of your reason for living for four years, sad or happy, you're going to cry. Chuck seems to have had all emotional responses wiped out of him. There's an additional ton of stuff in the third act that just sits there waiting for something to happen. Frankly, we would have preferred to see more of that ton. Instead, we get an open ending such as those found in pretentious art films.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cast Away, he would have paid...


Rent it for Tom's performance. Then figure out half a dozen ways to restructure the entire film to make it a lot more interesting; to give the very few supporting actors more depth; to restore the moments lost on the cutting room floor. It is not a difficult assignment.

CORRECTION (1/3/01): The package was "from" Texas (to Russia) and Chuck returned it to the incredibly cute redheaded sender, as an eagle eyed reader pointed out. Why FedEx would route a package to Russia via Tahiti is beyond us. We still stand by our dissatisfaction with the writing in the last act -- and that reader (Robert Mercer) came up with a very detailed explanation (including reason to live, new wife, yadda yadda) that only proves my point.

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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.