Friday, April 18, 2014

Cast Away

I knew the producers of Celebrity Survivor were not to be trusted. I awoke this morning, ready to face the music and to film the sequence in which my tiki torch would be extinguished and I would be expelled from the little society we have created here, all for the entertainment of middle America. However, when I struggled from my hut to the assembly area, neither cast nor crew was to be found. Fanning Island appears to be deserted and devoid of intelligent life. I feel like some elaborate charade is in play and that my footage is to be used on an update of The Twilight Zone. 

I spent some time foraging for breakfast and, after yet another meal of coconut milk and taro root, decided I'd better vote myself off the island as this show has definitely come to an end, no matter what clauses may be in my appearance contract. It then occurred to me that I was several thousand miles of civilized habitation of any stripe and I had no idea of how to achieve my goal of returning to a world of beauty salons, cable shopping and T-1 internet access. Fatigued, I hauled out my trusty solar powered laptop and DVD player and decided to enjoy a film.

While rifling through my 'To View' stack, I ran across the DVD of Robert Zemeckis' 2000 film,
 Cast Away with Tom Hanks. My fuzzy recollections of the film, which I missed in theaters, were that Tom had a somewhat similar predicament and I thought I just might be able to learn something from the film about how to return to the land of the living. I popped it in, found a nice palm to recline under, and off I went. 

Cast Away
 begins as an overly long Federal Express commercial, starring Hanks as Chuck Noland, a time management/efficiency expert for the company. He's a driven man, jetting the globe to bring us the best in speedy delivery, sort of a Mr. McFeely manqué, but with a potbelly and without a bicycle. He has a lovely lady friend, Kelly (Helen Hunt) who is much more of a plot device than a character and, one Christmas, he heads out on one more global run before he has a chance to give her an engagement ring. 

On this run, the fates conspire against him and the plane crashes (in the films only exciting sequence) into the South Pacific, miles off course and Chuck washes up on an uncharted desert isle with only the gulls, the fish, and various waterlogged Federal Express packages for company. In one of these is a volleyball, whom Chuck dubs Wilson (and how much did that product placement cost?) who becomes his companion through years of isolation. Does Chuck get off the island? Will he see Kelly again? This is a Hollywood picture so you should be able to figure that out. The only saving grace is that the end is more ambiguous and bitter sweet than one might expect, and therefore, much more true to life.

The whole second act (and much of the first and third) belongs to Hanks and it's a bravura performance in terms of the physical transformation of the fleshy Chuck into the hardened survivor of years on a lonely coral outpost. There a couple of problems, though. Chuck isn't so much a man as a set of ideas (by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and Zemeckis) and we've seen this story so many times before in all of the various adaptations of
 Robinson Crusoe. The film has nothing new to add to the drama of man against nature. Hanks does a great job, but it's ultimately to no avail. And what can you say of a film in which the leading man is constantly upstaged by a piece of sporting equipment? Wilson is the true breakout star here and should enjoy a long career in Hollywood, as long as people write literate parts for used leather spheres. 

None of the other humans in the film comes remotely close to establishing a presence. They aren't characters, they're walking clichés, necessary for the set-up and the resolution. Without them, there's be no need for Tom Hanks to lose all that weight and grow all that hair. Helen Hunt, that most charmless of leading ladies, stumbles through her part like a zombie on Quaaludes, thinking about all that money she earned on Mad About You
 and not about creating something even remotely human in this wannabe epic. 

Zemeckis does his best to keep us entertained. And his staging of the plane crash is superb. He also has found some creative tropical cinematography courtesy of Don Burgess. He flubs other moments, though. The ending, for instance, which should be transcendent, is simply confusing. In addition, for reasons surpassing understanding, he chose to score much of the film to various Elvis Presley songs; I kept expecting Ann-Margaret to pop out from behind a bush in a sarong and hibiscus blossom and warble
 Blue Hawaii. 

I can't say I recommend the film, but there are worse ways to spend a few hours. And Tom Hanks has some super moments that are worth seeing, even if they are all with a volleyball.

The DVD is a deluxe two disc set with commentary tracks, the usual HBOesque 'making of' documentaries, and a gag short starring Wilson, the volleyball. I was not interested enough to explore them all. Someday, if I am indisposed and recovering from colitis, I may take a look at them.

I will admit that the film has inspired me to leave the island. On completion, off I went to the crew 'village' where I took one of the porta-potties, tipped it over and threw it into the lagoon. I am about to climb aboard and float off for a more hospitable destination and I will check in with all you fans out there in the dark when I arrive.

Dreary Russian workplace. Dreary Russian workers. Winged sculptures. Useful pantyhose. Gashed limbs. Burning jet fuel. Peg calendar. Tarmac celebration.

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