I must have been in a mood for one-man survival stories, because after renting I Am Legend the other week next up was this Tom Hanks drama I somehow avoided watching all these years. Except that this time there are no killer mutants and instead of a dog, Tom Hanks’ character talks to a washed-up volleyball.
Starting with what at first feels like a shameless FedEx advertisement, we’re introduced to our hero Chuck Noland, a FedEx systems engineer who flies all over the world and lives his life by the clock. At home, his fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt) does her best to put up with his busy schedule, and gifts him with an old family watch for Christmas. Soon after, Noland’s plane crashes down somewhere in the Pacific after first getting blown off course, and he ends up a lone survivor on a small uninhabited island.
I loved Robinson Crusoe and Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island when a teenager, and I’ve always been drawn to the stories of survival in nature. Once Noland is washed ashore his tropical hell, the movie becomes wonderful visual storytelling anchored by another superb performance from Tom Hanks. A man ruled by the ticking clock, Noland finds himself in a place where time, schedules and plans for the future are irrelevant. It’s fascinating to watch him figure out the ways to take care of himself, when even cracking coconuts is a problem that requires brainpower to solve. Noland’s plight is relieved somewhat when a number of FedEx packages turn up on the shore, including a pair of ice skates (cutting blades!) and the above-mentioned volleyball that Noland dubs Wilson after its brand. It’s amazing how interesting it can be just to watch a person do things onscreen, without any kind of real plot involved, and how bizarrely moving a bond with an inanimate object can become.
While the island stuff makes for two-thirds of a great movie, Cast Away is less assured back in the civilised world. The prologue in Russia, where Noland lectures a local branch on the importance of on-the-dot efficiency (good luck with that), feels like an unnecessary diversion and you could have summed up the character in a much shorter time and without lame Russian accents. More importantly, Noland’s relationship with his fiancée never has the weight it’s aiming for, and when your love interest is less compelling than the hero’s relationship with a volleyball, it’s a problem when the movie wants to squeeze emotion out of it. But while Cast Away falters at the finish line and doesn’t start off great, the survival story at its heart is more than enough to compensate.