'Cast Away' Movie Review: Tom Hanks Excellent in Populist Existential Drama

Cast Away Movie Tom Hanks Island'Cast Away' Movie with Tom Hanks stranded on a deserted island.

'Cast Away' Movie review: Tom Hanks excellent in high-concept Hollywood flick disguised as existential adventure drama

Most people will see Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away as a celebration of the Triumph of the Human Spirit. A minority, myself included, will prefer the more mundane explanation that the film merely depicts a man following his survival instincts, which propel him – like any other animal, from cockroaches to crocodiles – to fight to remain alive almost against his will.

Whichever way one chooses to view the survival of Tom Hanks' Federal Express engineer Chuck Noland (No-land, get it?) after being stranded for years on a deserted island (mostly shot in Monuriki, Fiji), Cast Away is little more than an elaborate, populist star vehicle disguised as an existential The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe-esque drama.

A volleyball named Wilson

The story of a workaholic who must learn to live without work, without clocks, and without people – Chuck's only companion on the island is a volleyball named Wilson – this turn-of-the-millennium Robert Zemeckis release offers little depth in its exploration of the ever-elusive Meaning of Life.

Not helping matters, Cast Away also leaves much to be desired in terms of character development, unless, that is, one considers Wilson's radical transformation from brand new volleyball into something resembling a rotting pineapple. For instead of dealing with Chuck's inner metamorphosis from Man of the Clock to Man of the Now, William Broyles Jr.'s screenplay focuses on Chuck's failed attempts at leaving the island and on his determination to break a coconut shell.

But if the overlong Cast Away is considerably less profound than its makers intended it to be – much like Robert Zemeckis' previous collaboration with Tom Hanks, that monumental paean to idiocy and conformism known as Forrest Gump – the film does have a number of good qualities, boasting top-of-the-line production values and outstanding special effects that are used to create what may well be the most harrowing plane crash ever filmed.

Cast Away movie Tom Hanks'Cast Away' movie with Tom Hanks at sea.

Tom Hanks runs the gamut

Additionally, the capable Tom Hanks has the chance to run the gamut, at least on the surface, from neurotic workaholic to jungle savage to Zen Master. Even though the screenplay prevents the viewer from ever getting to learn the depths of Hanks' inner transformation, the two-time Oscar winner* acquits himself remarkably well, oftentimes surpassing the limitations imposed on his character.

If some of the island humor feels pretty silly – e.g., the scene in which Chuck sings “Come On Baby Light My Fire” should have been left stranded on the cutting-room floor – Hanks wins points for his more dramatic moments. Really, how many actors could weep for the loss of his hairy volleyball without looking laughably ridiculous?

No one is indispensable

Cast Away is also immensely helped by Alan Silvestri's score, which we first hear about two hours into the film, when Chuck finally escapes his tropical prison. Through Chuck's point of view, we see the island fade behind the ocean mist, while Silvestri's music increases in intensity to create one of those rare, magical screen moments.

Not even Silvestri, however, can save the corny (momentary) reunion between Chuck and his former fiancée, Kelly (Helen Hunt). Although she professes her undying love for the ex-castaway, Kelly has moved on with her life. Thus, that encounter merely serves as a justification for the film's pretentious two-word title: Not even Federal Express workers are indispensable.

Tom Hanks Cast Away endingTom Hanks: 'Cast Away' ending.

'Cast Away' ending: 'Red' rehash

Alan Silvestri's music returns later on to help elevate Cast Away's tacked-on whimsical finale – a “fateful” contrivance that feels more like a poor imitation of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors: Red than the intended moment of epiphany in the spiritual journey of our hero.

Yet, contrived or not, I was moved in spite of myself, partly because of Silvestri's haunting melody and partly because of Tom Hanks' touching, minimalist look of renewed hope.

Cast Away (2000).
Dir.: Robert Zemeckis.
Scr.: William Broyles Jr.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Helen Hunt. Lari White. Nick Searcy. Jenifer Lewis. Nan Martin. Vince Martin. Geoffrey Blake. Chris Noth. David Allen Brooks.

Cast Away Tom Hanks Helen Hunt'Cast Away' with Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt.

Tom Hanks' Best Actor Oscar wins and nominations

* Tom Hanks won back-to-back Best Actor Oscars for Jonathan Demme's AIDS drama Philadelphia (1993) and Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump (1994).

Additionally, Hanks was nominated for Penny Marshall's Big (1988), Steven Spielberg's World War II drama Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Zemeckis' Cast Away – for which, while filming was interrupted for about a year, Hanks went on a steady diet in order to look emaciated in his later scenes on the island.†

More recently, he was a shoo-in for Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips (2013), but ultimately failed to be shortlisted in the Best Actor category – despite the film's popularity with the various Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences branches, as indicated by its total of six nominations.

The Best Actor winner that year was Matthew McConaughey for another AIDS drama, Jean-Marc Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club. The other nominees were:

† During the year-long Cast Away movie break, Robert Zemeckis directed Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath.

'Cast Away': Oscar Movies

Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away received two Academy Award Nominations.

  • Best Actor
    Tom Hanks.
    Winner: Russell Crowe. Gladiator.
  • Best Sound
    Randy Thom. Tom Johnson. Dennis S. Sands. William B. Kaplan.
    Winners: Scott Millan. Bob Beemer. Ken Weston. Gladiator.

Cast Away cast information via the IMDb.

Helen Hunt and Tom Hanks Cast Away images: DreamWorks / 20th Century Fox.

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