No man is an island

Rated 4.0

Visits to the dentist will trend upward, and airline ticket bookings will perhaps take a little dip after many view Cast Away, the fine reunion film by Forrest Gump collaborators Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis.

In a year that doesn’t contain too many standout performances, Hanks is a virtual lock for yet another Oscar nomination as Chuck Noland, a Fed-Ex executive who, regrettably, decides to board a plane on Christmas Eve. The plane crashes into the ocean in a nightmarish sequence, with the film including a shocking underwater view of the wreckage sinking while a nearly drowning Noland looks on. Rank this crash with Fearless and Alive for the best depictions of an in-flight moment that hopefully none of us will ever have to experience.

Noland manages to grab a life raft while being blown out of the rear of the plane, and he washes up on an island that is best described as an infected boil rising up from the ocean. Inhabited by nothing but a few coconut trees, there will be no tracking of wild pigs for dinner. His sorry ass has managed to plant on the single most desolate island in the Pacific, and Noland has figured out that the search area is twice the size of Texas.

Without giving too much away, and assuming that you haven’t viewed the blasphemous, all-too-revealing TV commercials, I will tell you that Noland’s ordeal is a lengthy one, and Hanks undergoes an amazing physical transformation. Zemeckis shut down production for months so his star could go on a special diet that trimmed in the neighborhood of 50 pounds off his frame. Combined with a beard that managed to avoid contact with all strains of grooming products, Hanks becomes unrecognizable.

The physical accomplishments are a nice complement to what is a major acting achievement for Hanks, who spends most of Cast Away‘s running time without human companionship. Zemeckis wisely opts for no musical soundtrack on the island, and Hanks doesn’t have much to say until Wilson the volleyball washes ashore and gives him someone to talk to. This is perhaps the only film you will ever view during which you stand a mighty chance of getting all choked up over a volleyball.

The perils that Noland faces, both physical and psychological, are played to perfection by Hanks, who never ceases to amaze. Moments that struck me include his brief, tragic reaction to a dead body in the ocean that’s giving me shivers just writing about it, and his breakdown after the disappearance of Wilson, which has become his best friend. Although Zemeckis is a fine director, it’s hard to imagine this film with anybody but Hanks trying to spear fish on that island.

The buildup and resolution to Noland’s plight are handled well, although their brevity doesn’t allow enough to occur away from the island. Helen Hunt does some of her best work in these segments as Noland’s love interest, and her presence via a picture in his pocket watch is one of the few things keeping Chuck sane during his abandonment.

Cast Away is nearly 2 1/2 hours long, but it could’ve used another 15 minutes to beef up the beginning and end. The film’s final moments worked OK for me, but I could see some getting aggravated by the lack of detail in the concluding segment. As far as the overall feeling it leaves you with, it can best be described as a sort of tortured joy. The film is an often painful experience, but also an exuberant one in watching a master like Hanks doing his thing.

So Hanks does it again. What else is new? Hopefully, the nasty diet wasn’t too harsh on his cardiovascular system, so his ticker can take it when they start doling out the year-end honors.