January 23, 2001
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Director Robert Zemeckis's holiday movie release "Cast Away" has two atypical failings: it has a beginning and an end. It requires neither. Some would say they are necessary for the sake of form. But God knows Helen Hunt doesn't need the work this year, and the movie's charm and intrigue begin when Tom Hanks lands ashore a deserted tropical island, and end as he roasts like a blistering pig on a spit, beside the shadow of an industrial steamship.
The journey from a civilized life to bestial survival is swift, yet Tom Hanks maintains a convincing calm as his corporate intuition gives way to mammalian instinct. By primal and bestial I don't mean something negative. These words describe the physical and mental capabilities animals use to survive in uncivilized territory. They are human instincts that have mutated to adapt to today's society. The film's mastery is in the sequence of discovery of a primal self. And though we sense the savage capability just beneath his surface, Hanks' sheer determination, resolve, and patience are spellbinding.
Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a Federal Express troubleshooter who is as busy with life's details (and as negligent of what is truly important) as anyone you've ever met. After promising to spend New Year's Eve with his neglected fiancÚ, played by Helen Hunt, his plane crashes into the Pacific and he is the sole survivor.
There is no sex, and hardly any dialogue in the pithiest part of the movie. The screen is filled with Don Burgess' breathtaking cinematography and Hank's riveting portrayal of a human being changed from a civilian in a suit to a loner in a loincloth. Each elemental victory leaves the audience with humble reminders of how ineptly prepared we are to revert to the time of cavemen. Our educational system doesn't teach us how to feed ourselves or make fire or hunt or make clothing or soap or grow our own food. We are a bunch of thin-skinned weaklings.
But necessity is the mother of invention. We are reminded time and time again, as Noland utilizes the Federal Express packages that washed to shore beside him. His expression doesn't even change as he opens packages I would pray held food, or water, or cell phones, but instead reveal ice skates, a sleeveless dress of tulle, and video cassettes. They seem to mock him, but almost immediately Noland uses the ice skates to open coconuts, the tulle as a fish net, and before you know it, our hero is figuring out how to make fire. It is all believable, because think of what we could do if we had time, which is all he had.
Chuck used his own bloody imprint on the face of a leather soccer ball to give birth a friend named Wilson. And just like Adam needed Eve, so Chuck needed Wilson, who gave him license to talk and muse and effuse and scream without feeling like a bloody loon.
Also fascinating was the four-year transformation, shown in a heartbeat, of a pudgy middle-aged man into a lithe, muscled beast who could spear a fish with a single plunge. Yet he was an educated nature man, who calculated the wind stream accurately enough over the course of years to determine the day best suited to drive a hand-hewn raft past the fierce surf and out into the open sea, powered by a sail that was most likely a remnant from the very airplane that marooned him.
Unfortunately, this beautiful middle movie, where one man's many-layered life is stripped to a loincloth, is not allowed to exist alone, but must end with an attempt to reconcile his abandoned life. The director underestimates the ability of an audience to be enthralled with the primate that we all are. The movie's power is not in teaching us to slow down and smell the roses, but in showing us how close to the surface lies the beast within.
Lynn Trenning, January 23, 2001