Monday, February 23, 2015

Not a Single Luxury

Film: Cast Away
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on The Nook.

By 2000, everyone knew that Tom Hanks could be the leading man in a film. He’d done enough of them by that point, had won two consecutive acting Oscars, and had been the name above the title with enough critically acclaimed and box office-successful films that his star power was well known. The question Cast Away asks is whether or not Tom Hanks can be the sole focus of a film for a large part of its running time. Cast Away runs about 2 hours and 25 minutes, and the middle 75 are just Hanks either talking to himself or to a volleyball.

For what it’s worth, Cast Away is also a long advertisement for Federal Express, particularly the first 20 minutes or so. Chuck Noland (Hanks) works for FedEx resolving timing problems and finding more efficient ways to handle packages and systems. To do so, he travels around the world being all punctual and berating various levels of FedEx employees for being slow or not caring enough about time. Se see this initially in a visit he pays to Moscow, complaining that it took more than 80 hours for the package he sent from Memphis to reach him near Red Square. I’m immediately struck by the fact that it seems that a great deal of the time issue here didn’t specifically happen because of the Russian employees.

Regardless, Chuck gets back to Memphis where we meet Kelly (Helen Hunt), Chuck’s girlfriend and potential fiancée. Kelly is working on her Ph.D in…we don’t really find out. It’s implied that the main reason they aren’t married is that Chuck’s job takes him around the world on a moment’s notice and this interferes with their life together. As if to make the point, Christmas dinner is interrupted with an emergency in Malaysia. Chuck hops on the next outgoing FedEx flight to that area of the world.

Now, with a film called Cast Away, you know that something bad is going to happen on the flight. And something does. We never really find out what—in fact we’re told near the end of the film that it’s suspected that volatile cargo exploded, but no one really knows for sure. All that we do know is the plane crashes in the middle of the ocean and Chuck manages to survive. He literally weathers a bad storm and winds up the next morning in his rubber raft on a beach.

The heart of the film is Chuck’s learning to survive on his tropical and otherwise uninhabited island. We see his first stumbling missteps in hunting for food, dealing with a lack of fresh water on the island, and dealing with minor injuries. He also deals with the corpse of one of the pilots that washes ashore (this is mildly upsetting…no, really) and with an infected tooth. He also learns to make fire, eventually moves into a cave, and after what seems like too long a time, decides to open up the FedEx packages that wash ashore. He keeps one that is decorated with a pair of wings unopened as sort of a talisman.

This is also where we are introduced to Wilson, Chuck’s only “companion” on his island. Wilson, famously, is a volleyball that Chuck decorates to have a face. After his infected tooth episode, we doodley-doodely-doop ahead four hears to find that chuck has learned to survive pretty well, although he’s gone quite native. His life changes when the tide washes in a section from what looks like a Port-a-Potty. He uses this as a sail, rigs up a raft, and attempts to leave the island, where he is eventually picked up by a cargo ship.

The last act, more or less, is Chuck returning home and finding that Kelly has not only moved on with her life but has married and has a child. And just like at the start, this is where the movie loses me. I’ll get to this in a minute. Kelly, of course, is terribly upset that Chuck has returned while he learns to deal with the idea that one of the things that kept him going is evidently lost to him forever.

So let’s talk about Kelly’s marriage, because it really bothers me. When Chuck leaves the island, he scratches on a rock that he had been there 1,500 days. Assuming that’s at least close to right, he’d been there for roughly four years by the time he makes his escape. I don’t at all take issue with him returning to find that Kelly has moved on with her life. I simply object to the time frame. The baby is around a year old by my guess. Assuming she became pregnant after getting married, she’s been married a minimum of a couple of years. Assuming also a standard pre-marriage relationship…well, exactly how long did she mourn for poor, lost Chuck? Did she pick up this new guy at his funeral?

Look, I’m not trying to say that she should have waited around pining for him. Should I find myself on an uninhabited desert island for four years, I’d expect my family to move on, too. It wouldn’t shock me to find that my wife had gone on with her life. What I wouldn’t expect is for her to have been so quick to start a new relationship that she’d be already past her second anniversary. And were I to return, I wouldn’t expect her to give up her new life for me; I say this because Kelly is evidently willing to abandon her husband and child to be with Chuck.

There are nice touches here, like how completely tone deaf everyone around Chuck is upon his return. At his celebratory welcome home banquet, we see essentially a huge spread of seafood because that’s what everyone would want, and because no one would think that this is all Chuck had been eating for the last four years. One person even mentions wanting to take Chuck fishing, as if Chuck hadn’t had to fish for survival for the past Olympiad. I actually like these moments because they are so humanly ignorant of Chuck and so believable because of it.

But really, the third act pisses me off. Cast Away is surprisingly good up until the reunion with Kelly. If nothing else, the plane crash is worth the price of admission, because it’s really well done. Change that ending—make Kelly a newlywed, perhaps even pregnant—and I buy the whole thing. Without that change, she comes off as really callous (being willing to walk out on her own child adds to this), and it makes me wonder what he saw in her.

Why to watch Cast Away: It’s a pretty good story in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: If you don’t like Tom Hanks, you’re going to hate the second act a lot.


  1. Know what I found disturbing? Tom Hanks's extraterrestrial nipples. Those bad boys needed to be sanded down.

    1. Think he had a nipple fluffer? I'd like to think that he did.

  2. Okay, this is going to be a two part comment:

    1. The trailer ruined this film for me. In it we see Helen Hunt saying to Hanks, "We all thought you were dead." Obviously this is a scene after he has come back to civilization and obviously it meant she had moved on and he was going to be having issues because of this. The fact that they were showing it in the trailer made me figure that the main point of the film would be his readjustment. Sure, there would be castaway scenes, hence the title, but that wasn't going to be the focus, otherwise why spoil any suspense whatsoever by showing us he gets home okay in the trailer?

    So I sat there getting more and more impatient as the film kept staying on the island. "Get on with it. Get to him having to readjust" was my repeating thoughts as I disliked this film more and more. By the time it finally did get to it I think there was less than 30 minutes left (it's been about a dozen years since I saw this, so I could be wrong about that.) There was no redeeming the film for me at that point, though.

    2. I'm not really seeing what the issue with the time frame for her moving on is. From your example you're assuming he's been gone four years and she's been married for two. Six months is plenty of time to meet someone and get married, meaning it took her a year and a half before she started dating again. And having a baby doesn't mean marriage happened first. In fact, from her seeming lack of commitment to her marriage and the father of her child I'd assume the child might have come first and the marriage was one of convenience as they tried to make a family for the child, even though she didn't really care for the husband.

    1. You may be right about her, but if that's the case then the film should be more obvious with it. The two years of marriage is an absolute minimum in my estimation, and that's giving them a very short courtship for someone who--it is established in the dinner scene early in the film--is hesitant to marry again. Chuck is asked explicitly about when he is going to marry her, and his response is that the reason they aren't already married is because she is reluctant.

      In fact, when he gives her what is obviously an engagement ring as he is about to get on the plane that crashes, she doesn't want to take it because she knows she'll have to deal with that whole marriage thing, and this is to a guy she claims is the love of her life. She's nervous about marrying this guy she is committed enough to to share a home and a car with. And suddenly within a few years of his disappearance she's willing to marry somebody else and start a family? It just doesn't wash for me based on how that character is established in the first act. Two minutes of dialogue would clear this up entirely, and it's a two minutes of dialogue that would rescue her character. We should know that story because the Tom Hanks character would certainly want to know it, too. Giving her that chance to explain what happened would, at least in my opinion, rescue her character completely, or at least potentially could.

      As for the trailer, I never saw it, so the film wasn't spoiled for me in that respect. It does make a good case for smarter trailer construction, though, as well as a case for avoiding trailers whenever possible.

    2. You are far more familiar with the film, so I bow to you in regards to her inconsistencies in action regarding marriage. I honestly remember nothing of the earlier stuff with Hanks wanting to get married. Because I disliked it I've never watched this since the one time back when it came to DVD.

      The trailer for this film might be the most egregious example I can think of in regards to killing any suspense on what happens. Many other trailers have included scenes from the ends of films in them, but without any context in the trailer that's not apparent until having actually watched the film. (Birdman's trailer actually does this, to pick a recent example.)

      Sometimes a scene from a trailer will standout in my head. For some reason the image of Olivia Wilde walking while implied nude - shot from the shoulders up - in the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens stuck in my head - I've no idea why. :-) So when her character was apparently gone from the film I did think on that scene and say to myself, "she's not REALLY gone" and that was correct. That didn't really spoil things, though, and it was a middle of the film scene anyway.

      I do have to say that I figured out the twists/reveals for Fight Club, Derailed, Shutter Island, and the recent Gone Girl just from what was shown in the trailers, but that may be more due to the fact that I've just seen a lot of films. For instance, Shutter Island's trailer made me think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and from that I guessed what would happen in it.

    3. One of the great rants about a bad trailer comes from Mark Kermode. Do yourself a favor and take a look at this:

  3. Cast Away has ranked for many years on my all time top 20 of movies. At least until I started this project. I was greatly disappointed not to find it on The List.
    For me this is a story about how seperation can take people in very different direction and what what happens afterward, how what happened makes it impossible to go back. Most movies would end with the guy being picked up from that island, but the interesting story is actually how it is coming home. This, I have since found out, how been explored severel good movies on men coming home from war, but this is the only one I know of about coming back from a deserted island.
    I see your issue with the girlfriend's marriage and although I also wondered about the time scale involved, I found it less important. It is supposed to show that you cannot go back and it does that very well.

    1. I do actually like the movie. I just don't love it, and the main reason is that the third act falls apart for me.

      I also get your point about the third act really being "you can't go home again," but I think it could have been better handled, or at least handled in a way that doesn't make the Helen Hunt character that flawed.