Living in a civilization means we have plenty of food, shelter, access to medical care, etc.
It also means we can sometimes ignore the “big questions” about life. But what would happen if we suddenly found ourselves alone?
A person might be forced to develop facets of his personality which had previously lain dormant. A certain kind of facility in putting objects to unexpected use would become desirable. Other traits like people management and driving ambition would be of little value.
Cast Away is a well crafted story about one man's survival on a remote Pacific island, and it handles these sorts of issues with imagination and verve. Director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. fashion an interesting personal drama that delivers a series of emotional wallops. But somehow we're left unsatisfied.
The sudden stripping away of civilization should also make their protagonist wonder about what's important in life and what's not, no matter how resistant he is to interior reflection. But these larger questions of meaning get lost in the filmmakers’ focus on the details of his day-to-day struggle for survival. There is no inner journey. We're left with the impression that ingenuity and perseverance are the highest virtues.
The movie begins like an expensive commercial for Federal Express. Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is a systems engineer who's trying to organize the company's Moscow shipping operation. His employees, who grew up under communism, don't understand American standards of efficiency.
To Chuck, this means living and dying by the clock. “We can never allow ourselves the sin of losing track of time,” he declares in what is also an honest expression of his own personal value system.
Packages, he continues, must be delivered according to the officially advertised schedule. There can be no excuses. He warns that only a few delays and “pretty soon we're the U.S. mail.”
Chuck travels the globe troubleshooting and cheerleading for the company. But he practices what he preaches off the job as well. During his occasional stops back at headquarters in Memphis, Tenn., he hangs out with his devoted girlfriend Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), who's studying for her Ph.D. At a Christmas Eve dinner with family and friends we learn she's been waiting for him to pop the question, but he just can't seem to find the time.
A work emergency pulls him away from the festivities. The couple exchanges gifts in their car at the airport. She presents him with a family heirloom watch with her photo in it. He surprises her with the long awaited ring. He promises to be back by New Year's Eve to tie up the loose ends of their relationship.
Fate has other plans. The FedEx cargo plane on which Chuck is traveling crashes into the ocean, leaving him the sole survivor. He washes up on a deserted island of great beauty, hundreds of miles away from civilization.
Too Much Time
The movie shifts gears. For almost an hour we watch Chuck struggle to stay alive. It's just him versus the elements. The film-makers successfully make us experience through our senses what he's going through. We hear the relentless sound of the waves that surround his tropical paradise, towering so high that they prevent his safe escape, and we feel both the pitiless heat of the sun and the comforting warmth of the cave which shelters him from the ever-changing weather.
The body of a co-worker on the cargo plane is swept onto the beach.
After stripping the corpse of all effects that could be useful, Chuck buries him. What's surprising is that he never says a prayer or utters a word of Scripture. It's unrealistic that this moment wouldn't trigger some kind of reflection about mortality. But the filmmakers aren't interested in probing too deeply. It's on to the next survival crisis without missing a beat.
There are a few quiet moments between adventures. Chuck paints pictures of himself and Kelly on the walls of his cave and creates a special place for the watch with her photo. And he develops a comic relationship with a soccer ball from a washed-up parcel that he nicknames Wilson. But there's no serious self-examination.
The story jumps forward four years. Chuck is building a raft to leave the island. For reasons later explained, he's now willing to take the risk of searching for a ship that could rescue him on the open seas.
What follows is inventive and intriguing but still not quite enough. Chuck doesn't ever seem to be any wiser, just stunned by what he's been through. Aside from somewhat shedding his compulsion for efficiency, his character remains unchanged. His behavior towards others is always decent, and he keeps a stiff upper lip throughout.
The filmmakers aren't obligated to make a religious film out of this material, but they do take great care to establish time and its uses as a significant theme. It never pays off. Chuck does talk about learning the limits of logic. But after all that's happened to him, to simply conclude that “you gotta keep breathing” is philosophically a letdown.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.