Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 2:23 - Released 12/22/00

Warning: while there are no plot elements revealed here which do not appear in the film's trailer, some readers may wish to wait until after they've seen Cast Away before reading this review. The effectiveness of some of the film's surprises may be compromised.

A man stranded on a desert island has served as the premise for classic literature like Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, and has even figured into the recent fad of wildly popular and intellectually barren TV shows like Survivor. In Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away, it's two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks learning to crack coconuts and spear fish; he'll doubtless acquire another nomination for this intense work. Hanks has been stranded in outer space, behind enemy lines, and even in an evil toy store owner's office, but this performance, done with no other actors present during the majority of screen time, tops all the others, reaching the emotional level he acquired in his first Oscar-winning role, Philadelphia. If only his supporting cast measured up.

Cast Away, written by William Broyles Jr. (Apollo 13), is presented in three acts. The first section, which takes place in 1995, introduces us to Chuck Noland (Hanks), a Federal Express executive from Memphis whose job is to instill in his trainees his own slavish reverence for being on time. "Never commit the sin of turning your back on time," he preaches. Although he loves his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) very dearly, he must leave her at Christmas for a business trip halfway around the world. As they quickly exchange gifts, she gives him a family heirloom pocket watch with a picture of herself inside the cover. "I'll be right back," he says, kissing her goodbye. Hours later, his cargo plane crashes in the South Pacific, and Chuck, the only survivor, washes up on the shore of a tiny, uninhabited island with no provisions or supplies except the clothes on his back, his tiny picture of Kelly (in the stopped watch), and the contents of a few FedEx packages he manages to rescue.

The middle portion of the film, following Chuck's adventures from his first day to his rescue four years later, is the longest and most engaging part. With virtually no dialogue except for the occasional comment to himself or to a volleyball he names "Wilson," Hanks pulls off an amazingly real performance. Acting is much more difficult without a script to suggest emotions or the direction of events; Hanks and Zemeckis say with pictures what could not be said with a thousand words.

The final section involves Chuck's return home after having been thought dead by everyone he knows. Kelly, now married with a daughter, has understandably conflicted feelings about Chuck, having already gone through the grieving process and moved on.

It is wise of Zemeckis, who led Hanks to his second Oscar in Forrest Gump, to devote such a large portion of the film to Chuck's solitary exploits in his hellish paradise, because the scenes which feature other actors are noticeably less effective. Hanks and Hunt don't connect well enough before his absence to make their strained relationship afterward appear in stark contrast as it should. It is effective on the part of Broyles's script that the film is presented completely from Chuck's point of view rather than switching back and forth between him and Kelly, so we don't see her for the entire time he's on the island, either. Apparently, filming was halted for a year in order for Hanks to lose 50 pounds and grow his hair and beard; Zemeckis used this time to film What Lies Beneath. The change in Hanks's appearance is surprising, though some will recognize a similar look during one portion of Gump. Don Burgess's cinematography, supplying dazzling views of Chuck's tropical prison, highlight the irony of his situation, and Alan Silvestri's distinctive muscial score, although used sparingly, also underscores the sweeping beauty of the surroundings.

If all of Cast Away were as gripping as its long midsection, it would be overwhelming; still, even with its flaws, it marks another milestone performance for Tom Hanks as well as for Robert Zemeckis. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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