It’s ambitious and daring by Hollywood standards, but Castaway doesn’t push itself too far beyond what you would expect from a film featuring mainstream stars Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt.
Chuck Noland (Hanks) is a troubleshooter for FedEx, and his life is run almost desperately by the clock. It’s high-pressure, day-in, day-out, as he flits from city to city, improving the speed of moving parcels from A to B. Even his Christmas is ruined by a call leading him to the airport, with his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Hunt) in tow. They exchange presents in the car; she gives him her grandfather’s pocket watch, while she doesn’t have time to open his before he’s off to the next drama. It turns out that he’s been so wrapped up in his own busy life that he hasn’t even found out that his good friend’s wife is dying.
Chuck’s freight plane hits trouble somewhere over the Pacific, and is spectacularly brought down. It’s a graphic depiction of a plane crash, and be warned: you may have flashbacks next time you’re handing a flight attendant your boarding pass.
Chuck manages to escape the broken plane, and holding on to a rubber dinghy he floats off in the storm, luckily hitting land before morning. But it’s a deserted and reasonably inhospitable tropical island. Besides a small beach with sufficient numbers of coconuts and a single cave for shelter, harsh rock restricts any hope of serious exploration.
And so Chuck’s personal odyssey begins, as he works out a way to collect water, catch food, find shelter and make fire.
So if you could choose any 12 FedEx parcels to take with you on a deserted island, what would they be? Chuck doesn’t get to choose, but almost that many are washed to his feet over the next few days. While at first the items seem laughably superfluous – a designer netted dress, a pair of ice skates, a volleyball – they all soon find their uses. Another lesson, perhaps: things aren’t always what they seem if you can manage to think laterally, and you’re in desperate circumstances. The netted dress turns into a fishing net, the ice skates manage to assist in the extraction of an abscessed tooth, and the volleyball is given a face and turns into Dr Wilson, a companion for Chuck to conveniently chat with.
The trailer gave the ending pretty much away; so if you haven’t seen the trailer, you may not want to read on any further.
But if you have, you’d be correct in presuming that eventually, Chuck makes it back to the real world. What the trailer doesn’t reveal is how he adjusts to real life again.
Problematically, neither does the film. The question of whether Kelly has waited or not for him is quickly answered, but beyond that Chuck doesn’t have anything eloquent to say about what four years alone – struggling, man against nature! – has done to him.
While there’s a newfound appreciation for items Chuck once took for granted, such as cooked crab and fire available at the click of a gas gun, there’s nothing sophisticated in Chuck’s analysis of what has happened to him. So much for time alone being a catalyst for philosophizing. On the other hand, perhaps that would have been too predictable and heavy-handed.
The messages of the film are subtler than a few reflective lines, but they’re not profound, nor do they push any boundaries. Although there is a disappointing lack of complexity in Hank’s character, he puts in a typically solid performance. His weight loss and transformation into a blonde-dreadlocked athlete is quite remarkable (although he does seems to grow more sinewy over the last few months of his stay on the island than the first four years). Hunt, too, is pleasing to watch and enigmatic during the climax.
Castaway is enjoyable and entertaining, but it fails to offer any challenges. It may prompt some thought about how you live your life, and if for that reason only, makes it worth spending two hour of your precious time watching.