About ten years ago, my stepfather decided to give me the option of watching a movie with him. My options were Cast Away, the Billy Bob Thornton film Sling Blade, or the classic Tom Clancy film “The Hunt For Red October”. . We’d watched “Saving Private Ryan”, which had inspired both of us to delve deeper into Tom Hanks‘ filmography. I’d grown up watching “Toy Story”, so I was always familiar with the actor. But it wasn’t until I was given this choice that I finally understood exactly why Hanks is considered one of the greatest actors to ever act.
I eventually watched all of the films that were optioned to me that day, but none stuck with me more than Robert Zemeckis’ take on the classic story of a man lost at sea. Having just finished a rewatch after many years without seeing it, I felt compelled to share my thoughts about why this film is so important and how it should be remembered as one of the must-see films released today.
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Boarding the plane only to be Cast Away
For those unaware, Cast Away follows a FedEx Systems Analysis Executive named Chuck Nowland (Tom Hanks) following a plane crash in the southern Pacific ocean. After washing ashore a secluded island, Chuck, your average everyday man, is faced with the most primal of obstacles: to survive. Left with only the clothes on his back, an unopened FedEx Package with a hand-drawn pair of wings on it, and a very sarcastic volleyball, Chuck has to endure to survive the island.
Cast Away deals with lots of emotions and fears, most of which are shared by every human being. The fear of being lost. The fear of losing who you are. The emotion of giving up everything you knew to survive on basic instinct alone. All of these are attributes that Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks strived to achieve upon the film’s release. Watching the film, you are struck by the core fear of being on your own.
Separated by miles of ocean
First off, Tom Hanks is a treasure and must be protected at all costs. The man got his start in 1984 in his lead role of Ron Howard’s fantasy romantic comedy film “Splash”, notable for being Touchstone Pictures’ first film released to wide audiences. While audiences got to know the goof that was Tom Hanks as he pined after a mysterious woman who was also a mermaid (played by the ever-beautiful Daryl Hannah), Hanks was slowly given more roles to show off his chops before hitting it big, well, “Big”.
On the other side of the vast ocean lay Helen Hunt, who plays Chuck’s love interest Kelly in the film. Hunt is more widely known for her roles in the films Twister (1999) and the 80’s sitcom “Mad About You”. Having recently branched out into directing in recent years, Hunt has also had a successful career and is no stranger to lonely islands, having starred in the television adaptation of the “Swiss Family Robinson” in the mid-70s.
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And we can’t forget the real star of the show, Wilson the Volleyball. Officially starting his career in a cameo as the volleyball from that one scene in “Top Gun”, Wilson went on to appear as himself in “Cast Away” as Chuck’s only source of companionship on the island. While his breakout role lead to many purchases of products inspired by his appearance in the film, Wilson has instead lavished in obscurity, with his only recent public appearance being alongside co-star Tom Hanks during the Opening Pitch of a Cleveland Guardians baseball game on April 15th, 2022.
Jokes aside, Cast Away built itself on telling a more modern and original take on the lost at sea premise. Unlike other films and shows which adapted original stories on the concept, Cast Away instead was the brainchild of Hanks himself. Hanks had been searching for a role to play where the main character was left in a place of true hopelessness without the requirements of living: food, water, shelter, fire, and company. It wasn’t until he learned that FedEx had three planes flying across the Pacific that he thought “what would happen if one of those went down?”
The feelings of hopelessness are echoed throughout the film, clearly exemplified as the entire time Chuck is on the island in the film, there is no music save for a few Elvis tracks heard before the plane goes down. It isn’t until Chuck leaves the island that Alan Silvestri’s limited score begins to take precedence. Done intentionally to drive home the feelings of isolation, there aren’t even the sounds of bugs or birds on Chuck’s Island, leaving him alone with only a bloody volleyball to talk to for four years.
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Obviously, the film shows Chuck being rescued. But unlike any prior medium, there is no real celebration of Chuck’s return. Sure there is some public relations stuff, but the focus is shown more on how Chuck’s four-year isolation has left him still stuck on an island, yet safely on land. Left with only a box he never opened and a pocket watch with his girlfriend’s picture to keep him sane, he returns to a world that has left him behind, and we feel his disconnection.
The film connects with us on an emotional level as the core theme of the film isn’t truly survival, it’s deciding your next step on the path going forward. “Cast Away” is filled with crossroads decisions that at first glance don’t hold much meaning.
First, we witness Chuck’s decision to fly out of Memphis on Christmas, leaving his girlfriend behind. He had every opportunity not to make this decision yet he took it and was left stranded on an island. The film’s emphasis on the costs of your decisions is driven home in the final thirty minutes as Chuck is faced with the moral dilemma of reentering society following four years of isolation.
The final crossroads is shown in the final moments of the film, where Chuck delivers the package that he held onto for the four years that inspired him to stay alive. Upon delivering that fateful package, Chuck comes to a literal crossroads. Given the option of moving on with his life or turning back to start a new life with the woman whose package saved his life, Chuck smiles and we are left to ponder the same question: what next?
The final question is always what to do next when your journey is complete. It’s perhaps the scariest question in the world. Not knowing is still one of my greatest fears, and I face it every single day. But it didn’t stop Chuck, so why should it stop me? Because you never know what the tides will bring.
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