Posted on 4/05/10 04:29 AM
I'm drawn to strong characters of great will. There's something alluring about survivors. Watching people that endure (and not always necessarily overcome) peril of the harshest variety can strike a chord with everyone, I think, on a purely human level. And I mean regular, ordinary people and not the cinematic tropes of supermen that can only exist within the confines of cheap fiction, a place Zemeckis has unapologetically ventured before in his career. He's at his best form here.
This is a film I regard very highly. Both when I saw it in the theater and whenever I have the pleasure of experiencing it again. It is not a film I can watch routinely. No, it's digestible in the way a person might savor the nourishment of a rarely had, but much appreciated meal. The last time I watched this was several years ago, and as I viewed it this Easter it was as good an experience as it was when seen for the first time. This is not something I can gloat about often. Even films I hold in high regard wan on me when viewed without moderation (consistent, day to day viewings of The Dark Knight on television spring to mind, where I'm left making a mental checklist of all the editing travesties). Cast Away is an uplifting movie for me, although that's not to say there isn't great sadness within the fable (there is, and some scenes are truly crushing). Films like this remind me that movies cannot ever be truly disregarded as peasant storytelling mediums with absurd budgets (something I frequently feel when benchmark movies like Avatar are heralded). No, this flick reaffirms better than most that some stories benefit from being seen and heard.
The Carusoesque fable has been told before, and often times in less flattering ways (Survival Island and The Blue Lagoon for example, and don't get me started on JJ. Abrams's horrid television show Lost). It isn't the kind of story that can always be appreciated in the theater. When I watched it at the local multiplex (carpet stains and all) when it first released, the long sequences of isolation and non-speech were followed by echoes of sighs and tsks from some members of the audience. If I watched it in theaters now I would probably have seen countless cellphone panels lit up in the darkness. These are the same people that probably wanted to pull their hair out during the first half hour of WALL-E. This is certainly not a film for the patient. Too bad, because the estrangement on the island is where the film shines, and it is here that keeps me revisiting this piece over and over.
Other films that depict similar tales very often, I've noticed, distance the audience from the shipwrecked (or in this case, planewrecked). What you get is a kind of voyeurism that's popular with this genre (and taken to "reality" extremes like those survival shows on network television where you watch reenactments of true stories showing how people get lost in the woods). But this is the kind of story that makes a person forget about air conditioned rooms and local luxuries (like icecubes). You're there on the island with him. Chuck is a smart fellow, and sure...some of the solutions to his predicaments are polarizing, since I doubt many people would be as ingenious with VHS tape and flint fire. But Tom Hanks plays him in a way that's very ordinary, like he could be someone you've met. You believe Chuck. You're with him.
What keeps this movie from being truly great are some scenes outside of Chuck's exile on the island, a few of which are questionable or overlong, and one that is truly disastrous to a film that bears no pretense otherwise (I'll get to that). The early scenes are necessary, as they introduce us to Chuck. We see him working and we see him with his girlfriend, all before he makes his fateful flight. Helen Hunt is not an actress I see in many good movies, and the roles given to her are rarely this affecting. The chemistry between the two characters is pivotal in this film, and her role in particular is very important. Aside from a disappointingly formulaic moment at the end (and a "not supposed to be funny but is" line of dialogue from Hanks) I believed the two of them. Before Chuck goes off to meet his fate on the island he proposes in a quirky, but subtle manner. A lesser movie would made this scene overly dramatic and hit you over the head with the film score. It's important that these people feel real and that they are bland in the way real people can be most of the time when it comes to things that needn't be said to their counterparts. People who love each other don't need to prove it to us. This is something fictional romance has always grappled with expressing properly.
What doesn't work as well is an ambiguous ending that's not questionable for its message so much as its appearance in the movie. I wanted to see Chuck well off, and I'm sure most viewers of this movie will. But maybe it's one scene too many in a film where Chuck's mission to leave the island is the strongest moment. The scene I mentioned earlier, the one that doesn't fit at all, occurs late in the movie and involves Chuck giving a monologue to a dramatic rotating camera...where he assesses obvious points the film had already established beautifully. It was kind of frustrating for me, as a storyteller myself, to be spoonfed truths I had already learned for myself. It's kind of like the Joker-tragedy from The Dark Knight; Joker is an agent of chaos, and we know it. He doesn't need to tell us about it so much, just in case we missed it when Gotham was burning. Subtlety. This film gets it right most of the time.