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J. Hoberman on Cast Away, Village Voice, Dec. 20-26, 2000.
It's perversely appropriate that the holiday season would be marked by not one but two evocations of overwhelming solitude. Robert Zemeckis's Cast Away is an updated Robinson Crusoe in which Tom Hanks plays an excitable Federal Express manager who has just become engaged to America's sweetheart Helen Hunt when he is stranded alone on an uninhabited South Pacific atoll after his company cargo plane goes down in a Christmas Day storm.
Zemeckis's facility at F/X management is a given and the plane's crack-up is impressively visceral—the climax of Titanic compressed into 10 harrowing minutes of plunging vessels and flaming seas. Nor does the pummeling stop once Hanks is washed up on the white-sand beach of his personal Club Med. Island life is a baffling, bloody ordeal complicated by unsmashable coconuts and the bad tooth throbbing in the survivor's head like a time bomb. While Robinson Crusoe was a paean to the practical middle-class virtues that allowed its industrious hero (and the nation he represents) to re-create civilization out of nothingness, Cast Away is a far less triumphalist peek into the nothingness at the heart of civilization.
Fortunately, a few indestructible FedEx boxes wash ashore—one containing an apparently useless volleyball that, as soon as Hanks paints a face on its surface, becomes his combined pal, pet, and pagan idol. In another bit of product placement, Hanks calls the ball by its trade name: Wilson. Although Cast Away is very much Hanks's extreme everyman solo, his inanimate Man Friday deserves recognition as one of the year's best supporting actors. At the very least, Wilson gives the star a pretext for the movie's most emotionally wrenching scene. Alone with this absurd self-projection, Hanks spends four years on his island before building a getaway raft. The shot in which he looks back at his verdant prison, having arduously paddled free into the open ocean, is pure science fiction: He's blasted out into space, accompanied by his sidekick, Wilson.
The raft sequence has intimations of 2001 that don't stop even after Hanks returns to civilization (on a plane of total solitude) to hear how the "FedEx family" lost five of its "sons" and endures a bad-beyond-belief meeting with his dentist. I was amazed at the depth of alienation with which Zemeckis infused these scenes. But as if frightened at having conjured up the least compromising, bleakest vision of the human condition in any Hollywood A-picture since Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Zemeckis casts it away with pumped-up affirmation. God moves in mysterious ways. It's a wonderful life after all.