"Cast Away" comes to us from the Academy Award-winning couple Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"), and it is plainly aimed at a repeat -- particularly in this dismal year when just about anyone and anything has a chance to win. It is the story of hyper FedEx efficiency-expert Chuck Noland (Hanks, but I thought that efficiency experts as a device to explain hyper personalities went out in the 1940s), racing around the globe to urge the minions to greater speed, with barely enough free time to see his fiancée Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) back in Memphis.
Off to New Zealand in a FedEx plane to spend Christmas flogging the troops, his plane crashes in the Pacific, and he is the only survivor. Washed up on a classic desert island, he now must find a way to survive, relearning before he starves or dies of thirst all the skills it took humans hundreds of thousands of years to learn. Here we can see that Hanks's genius as an actor is his ability to communicate ordinariness; his image on screen, in all his films, is the way we think of ourselves, no matter the situation the film has placed him in. We identify more with him, in such a situation, than we would with, say, a character played by Sean Penn; Hanks is Everyman, and we have come to look for that quality in all his films.
And so we spend the next hour watching him learn to live and avoid dying on the island. In the middle, a title appears on screen: Four Years Later. Hanks has grown a patriarch's beard and lost the famous 55 pounds, while Zemeckis went off to make "What Lies Beneath," and now his energies and the film's are directed to building a raft and getting the hell off the island, win or lose, risking it all to return to Kelly, whose gift to him of her grandfather's old railroad watch with her photo inside has kept him focused for the four years of his sad odyssey.
He returns, he finds that things are not as they were, neither with Kelly nor with himself, and the film ends with Chuck at a crossroads. We do not know which direction he will choose.
But we do know which direction screenwriter William Broyles Jr. has chosen, and that is to pump cliché after cliché into the script, turning human beings into caricatures, finding only the shallowest lines and most vapid moments in his people's lives. Hunt and Hanks are barely there; they are ghosts of human beings.
Zemeckis, whose chance at glory here lies in directing the island sequence, also destroys the film's believability by making his camera an intrusive participant in the action. He swoops and circles, craning high above Hanks and then going underwater for closeups of his feet as he wades along the rocky shore. We have macro lenses recording in extreme closeup the making of fire; we have the camera pushing in for closeups as Hanks removes an infected tooth. Zemeckis is relentless in making his camera, and not his actor's life, the center of the film. It is obvious that he thought Hanks's actions needed punching up, and by doing so he has ruined what might have been the best "Robinson Crusoe" yet.
The film has moments of power, mainly because Hanks is a believable man and has the actor's tools of understatement in voice and body language. But Zemeckis never lets up enough to allow us the pain and pleasure of identifying with his lead character. What should have been a slow and powerful buildup from arrival on the island to escape four years later comes instead in little bursts of energy; the intertitle "Four Years Later" should have hit us like a hammer. Instead it simply reads like "Act II." One last wicked thought: When Chuck and Kelly do meet again, she has a husband and a little girl. At least, I hoped, let the child be Chuck's. Alas, it was not to be.