Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is an executive for Federal Express, one of those guys who's consumed by time, his pager always on, alternately serving as a six-gun and a ball and chain. His get-it-there-yesterday schedule places a damper on his relationship with Kelly (Helen Hunt). Despite an aversion to guys who wear pagers, she's intent on landing her Ph.D. and doesn't exactly have time for him, either. She's never around to field his long-distance phone calls, and he has to all but drag her away from her dissertation.
When the film's second scene shows Chuck telling a group of bored Russian proles never to turn their backs on time, you just know it won't be long before time turns its back on him. And sure enough, just after popping the question, he hops on a post-Christmas business flight across the Pacific and his plane runs into the mother of all storms, is blown miles off course and breaks in half when it dive-bombs into the ocean. Chuck, who wasn't strapped in at the time of impact, is the only survivor (how's that for a ringing endorsement of in-flight safety procedures?). He's thrown to safety--and four years of impending seclusion--on a quaint little island filled with lots of coconut trees, a rocky promontory and not much else.
What follows is a remarkably courageous and restrained half-hour of filmmaking. Robert Zemeckis, a director who doesn't normally number restraint among his professional virtues, decided that the use of internal monologue was one of the things that wouldn't survive the crash. Zemeckis casts away any ideas of flowery first-person voice-overs expounding on the ways in which isolation is making Chuck a better, more self-sufficient person. Instead, the camera gives us just the bare necessities: Hanks, the island and huge stretches of screen time where scarcely a word is spoken. It heightens the sense of being stranded, but never so much so that we feel trapped or anxious to leave.
We're with Chuck when he stumbles to find shelter in a cave, his feet slashed and bleeding from coral cuts. We're right in his stubbled face as he struggles mightily to ignite a spark with a pair of sticks, wounding himself in the process. We're there meandering on the beach when he discovers a small collection of intact FedEx packages in the jetsam--packages that contain an odd assortment of items that become invaluable to his survival, including a volleyball that will prove to be his psychological anchor.
Hanks, who reportedly held up production to shed 60 pounds and nurtured an impressive Robinson Crusoe beard to film the island scenes, is the only ring in what, for much of the film, essentially amounts to a one-man circus. Hanks has become the master of understated emotion, communicating an almost palpable sense of anguish and triumph in simple gestures. The scenes he shares with other actors back in civilization aren't nearly as powerful as those on the island, but that's the film's only drawback.
Cast Away isn't just another testament to the indomitable human spirit--it's an admonition, in case anyone missed the significance of the fact that there are two words in the movie's title, not just one. It's not until Chuck has shed nearly every trapping of civilization--including the contents of those ever-helpful FedEx packages--that salvation and a return to the world become possible. In this respect, Cast Away serves as subtle Christmas counterprogramming, critiquing the materialism that grips this country during the holiday season as well as megaplex competitors like The Family Man, a film that suggests that bliss comes from having your loved ones and your millions, too.
It's a powerful message, but Zemeckis avoids braining us with it, like a shot to the head with an overripe coconut. Hanks is given exactly one speech in which he rationalizes the survivor's mindset that carried him through those four lonely years (and explains a key plot point in the process). Is this really the same team who whapped us across the face with Forrest Gump, one of the least subtle pieces of propaganda filmed in the 1990s? Even when presented with not one, but two opportunities to go for a tidy, sentimental conclusion, Zemeckis and Hanks display that admirable restraint. That, Virginia, is what you'd call a Christmas surprise.