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20 years ago: Tom Hanks got skinny, and profound, in Cast Away

At the edge of the world, his journey begins.

Revisiting Robert Zemeckis Cast Away

Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away, released 20 years ago this week, is one of those films that’s much more impressive in terms of its degree of difficulty, than as a filmmaking achievement. It’s an ambitious production, well-remembered for a performance from Tom Hanks that put his body and health on the line. But as a movie? It’s only middling. 

Cast Away told the story of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a FedEx executive obsessed with time and efficiency, On a trip to Malaysia, Chuck’s plane crashes in a remote part of the Pacific, before washing up on an island, and Chuck is the only survivor. He therefore must survive, alone, on the island, with a volleyball (which he names Wilson) his only companion. 

The entire island sequence, lasting over an hour, has Hanks alone, frequently talking to himself, as he plots first to make fire, and later to figure out how to escape, meanwhile coming to terms with being the time expert living in the slowest place on earth, with nowhere to go. Adding to the difficulty, Zemeckis uses no background music at all. This works, both because of the power of Hanks’ performance, and because the film invests stakes in Hanks getting off the island, where he ultimately stays for more than four years. 

It’s one of Hanks’ best on-screen turns, and got him one of his many Oscar nominations. It’s a shame about the rest of the movie, though. 

In a highly controversial move at the time, the film’s trailer gave away that Chuck gets off the island and returns to his hometown and his girlfriend (Helen Hunt.) The film had some fascinating ideas to play with here, in that everyone Chuck knew thought he was dead, that they’d even had a funeral for him, and that the girlfriend had moved on, gotten married (to Chris Noth) and even had a child. 

But this portion of the movie collapses into melodrama, along with an ending that’s corny, even by Zemeckis standards. 

The film, released in December of 2000, had a production story that’s the stuff of legend, and reminiscent of that of Scorsese’s Raging Bull: Zemeckis shot half the film- the first and third acts- before adjourning for an entire year, at which time Hanks lost a dramatic amount of weight and grew out his beard, to convincingly portray a man starving on an island- a period in which Hanks was often seen at awards shows skinny and with the long beard. In the meantime, Zemeckis used the hiatus to make another film, What Lies Beneath, which was released six months before Cast Away

While the island portion of Cast Away represented fine minimalist filmmaking, Zemeckis has gone far away from anything like that in the years since, mostly making films like The Polar Express (also with Hanks), Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Welcome to Marwen, and this year’s The Witches. Everyone knows Zemeckis knows his way around effects, but his best films — Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and even Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are great for their human element, even beyond the effects.

Zemeckis did better with The Walk, even if it wasn’t quite at the level of the documentary that inspired it, Man on Wire, as well as Flight back in 2012. Between Cast Away and Flight, Zemeckis is probably the best director when it comes to staging plane crashes, although Hanks would be part of an even better-filmed plane landing in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. 

Cast Away, two decades after its release is remembered well for Hanks’ performance and the massive amount of effort that went into it- much better than for how it’s remembered as a movie. 

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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