#4 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
This is the ultimate Robert Zemeckis film. A man, alone with a problem that he needs to solve, a handful of tools at his disposal, all of which he uses, and long takes. This is the movie that he was born to make, and it’s the movie he had been building up to with decades of experience. Young Zemeckis could not have pulled off the quiet of Tom Hanks’ life on a deserted island like this.
Chuck is a FedEx employee who helps set up and fix foreign branches of the company. He starts in Moscow, establishing an office and talking endlessly about how Time is the ultimate enemy. He lives his life by the clock. The clock on the wall in the Moscow office is what that office is to operate by. He’s constantly referencing the time and how long it will take to do things. He has a fiancée, Kelly, in Memphis, Tennessee that he loves and tries to see as much as possible, but his work just keeps pulling him away. On Christmas Eve, Chuck gets a message that something needs fixing in Asia, so he jumps on a plane after a nice goodbye with Kelly that includes a potential engagement ring in a wrapped package, and the cast away begins.
Robert Zemeckis is an incredibly talented and technical minded director, so the idea that the crash sequence would be good is kind of baked into the cake of Cast Away. However, this crash sequence is amazing and might be the single best sequence Zemeckis ever put together. The build up around the jostle that wakes Chuck up, the storm outside, the quick look at a screen showing them off course, the increased turbulence, the sudden explosion, the loss of cabin pressure, the crash, the sinking fuselage, the raft finding its way to the surface with Chuck desperately clinging on, and then the camera pulling back slowly as Chuck, a small figure on the big ocean only lit by lightning strikes, gets steadily smaller and smaller. It’s a bravura sequence that uses image and sound perfectly, planting the audience at the center of the chaos without ever losing sight of Chuck or the overall movement around him, keeping the evolving action clear while providing us our emotional groundwork in Chuck.
Once on that island, the movie markedly changes on purpose. The first section of the film was loud and busy with Chuck dominating conversations constantly as he lived by a clock. Suddenly, there’s no one to talk to and time doesn’t matter. That change is what makes the life on the island so stark. Opening the movie with this would be one thing, dropping us into it after thirty minutes of completely different modes of storytelling is something else. The audience can feel as isolated and alone as Chuck as he calls out impotently to no one while quietly picking up a handful of floating packages on the shore (and sorting them by destination, of course) and figures out how to survive. The grounded nature of Chuck’s search for a way to survive is compelling even as it covers small ground. Fire, of course, is something that we can completely take for granted, but when the only food Chuck can manage to eat is the meat of coconuts because crab legs are goop without being cooked we can understand the quiet determination and loud outbursts of frustration that grip Chuck as he tries to make fire for the first time.
This is the introduction of the other main character in the film, Wilson the volleyball. There’s a basic narrative need to give Chuck someone to talk to without him just talking to himself, and the creation of Wilson is a good place to direct that energy. Born from his own blood after an accident with the fire sticks, Wilson provides a face that Chuck can speak to, sort out his thoughts, and let the audience know what Chuck ends up planning to do. That there is an emotional connection to Wilson at all is really derived from Chuck’s very understandable need to simply have someone else in his life other than the sand and trees around him. His sole companion for four years means something to him, and because we can understand the depth of Chuck’s plight we can understand that emotional connection to a smear of blood on a white volleyball. Maybe we can or cannot share in it, but we can certainly understand it.
There’s a time jump of four years, and the physical transformation of Hanks from one side of that jump to the other is rather stark. The production famously shut down for an entire year (when Zemeckis made What Lies Beneath with the same crew) so that the pudgy Tom Hanks could slim down to his far thinner frame for the second half of the film, but that’s only part of the transformation. Hanks was nominated for an Oscar in this role, and he deserved that nomination. The boisterous and gregarious fixer becomes incredibly different through those four years. He’s quieter and more manic on the island, and when he gets off the island, suddenly surrounded by the world he had so easily fit into before, he’s so quiet and small in comparison to who he was. The man who was so comfortable in the middle of a crowded conversation now looks like he would rather sink through the floor than bear another minute of it, but he’s just too meek to do anything about it. That personal transformation is far more impressive than the physical transformation.
The effort to get off the island is the sort of goal based narrative that Zemeckis was so familiar with. This is really the core of the idea that this is the ultimate Zemeckis film, the goal is the only thing for such a long stretch. Chuck decides that he can use the half of a port-a-potty that washes up on his shore as a sail, but he only has a few months to form the necessary rope, build the raft, stock it, and launch it before the weather turns against him until the next year. The effort to make all of that happens is surprisingly compelling because we have a clear goal, clear stakes, and a likeable protagonist that we can root for all wrapped up together and focused on with clear-eyed purpose. It helps that the combination of on location filming and special effects are so seamless that everything about the production feels completely real.
The advertising famously gave away the ending of the film in the trailer and made it clear that it was giving away the ending. Occasionally trailers will show you shots from late in the film, but in the context of the trailer you don’t realize it (the trailer for Eastern Promises has the final shot of the entire film in the trailer, for example), but it was obvious that the trailer was giving everything away. Zemeckis called it a marketing decision based on research that showed that people liked to know exactly what they were getting before they walked in, using McDonald’s food as an example (he could have potentially used popular police procedurals like CSI as another). This really irritated some reviewers like Roger Ebert who couldn’t get past the film’s marketing to judge the movie and its ending on their own.
So, let me talk about the ending and why it’s great.
Chuck gets off the island and he’s a different man. He no longer cares about time, but he does still love Kelly. And yet, it’s been more than four years since he left. She may have been a constant for him in a place without time, but time continued on without him. Kelly grieved and moved on, marrying and having a daughter. At the beginning of the movie, Chuck was so concerned with the time around his job that he never made the time for Kelly, the two needing to negotiate schedule books to discover when they would next see each other when Chuck gets called away for his fateful flight to Asia. Now, returned to Memphis, he understands how to appreciate time, and he can no longer have the one thing he wants most in the world. He could have had her had he prioritized her, staying home on Christmas instead of going to Asia, but after he made that decision there’s no turning back. He has to move on, just like she did. It’s a wonderful embrace of the central idea that runs through the whole film.
Cast Away is a great technical achievement, which is no surprise from Zemeckis, but it’s also incredibly intelligent thematically and mature cinematically. Zemeckis has grown into an incredibly assured filmmaker. I hope he doesn’t fall in love with weird computer animation, though. That would be weird.