"Cast Away" is built on a clever idea: Strand Tom Hanks on a deserted island, with no technological crutches to lean on and no other actors to share the load. A great publicity ploy, the setup also clears the path for a tour de force from Hanks, whose Academy Awards barely disguise his recent degeneration into a human G.I. Joe doll. (Here's Tom as an astronaut! As a soldier! Where will adventure take him next?)
Robert Zemeckis, who previously directed Hanks in Forrest Gump, this time dresses our hero as Chuck Nolan, a systems engineer for the FedEx corporation. Traveling the globe to teach employees the company's ways, Chuck will brook no excuses for any slowdown in service. He's all business.
While celebrating Christmas with his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt), Chuck learns of another international run, one he can't ignore. He boards a plane and vows to be home soon. Instead, the vessel goes down at sea (in a brilliant, suspenseful sequence) and Chuck washes up on an uninhabited shore. There's little hope of rescue: The search area is twice the size of Texas.
Chuck's accommodation to primitive living is shot with an expertise that makes high drama of each little victory, like starting a fire without matches or smashing open a coconut. But as examples of ingenuity under duress, none of these vignettes offer wisdom that can't be gleaned elsewhere -- like in the Swiss Family Treehouse at Disney's Magic Kingdom. And that's nowhere to look for a third Oscar.
Four years later, Chuck is a loincloth-wearing, bearded longhair who's mastered the rituals of survival in the wild. Watching Tom Hanks become Ted Nugent is the least of this segment's virtues. There's also Chuck's troubling habit of talking to a volleyball he's decorated with a human face; he addresses it as Wilson. Illustrating Chuck's slipping sanity while giving Hanks a reason to speak out loud, these scenes also pose worthwhile questions about man's need for companionship -- or even gods, which is what the totemic Wilson often resembles.
Unfortunately, the psychological thread is abandoned as Chuck's physical fate takes center stage. Will he ever make it off the island alive? A better question: Who's to care, when the film's best elements have been jettisoned?
The choppy narrative makes Chuck's ordeal seem more brief than it is. As shown, it's merely the world's worst layover. And the closest the script comes to an actual statement is its suggestion that the entire affair is karmic payback for the workaholism that put Chuck on the plane in the first place.
In other words, "Cast Away" is no more profound than "City Slickers" or "Hook," to name but two latter-day films that have castigated the modern American -- that means us -- for not stopping and smelling the roses. As always, the lecture is oddly timed. How hard can we really be working? We're at the movies, aren't we?