Here is our last foray into the awards-baiting holiday releases of 2000. Should thing go as planned, we’ll be back on schedule with January releases next week.
Logline: After a hellish plane crash, FedEx efficiency expert Chuck Noland finds himself stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific and must learn to survive against all odds.
It should be no surprise to most people out there that if there’s a Robert Zemeckis movie that needs watching, I’ll be there. Even better, he had not one but two releases in 2000, this gigantic Tom Hanks vanity project and the smaller (but not by much) Hitchcock homage that was What Lies Beneath, which he shot while Hanks was busy losing weight and growing a beard.
But while I have been known to be an unabashed Zemeckis fanatic (some would even say I was an apologist for his later work, to which I say “suck my nuts”), this one, the one where Tom Hanks spends over 90 minutes of a 150-minute film by himself on a terrifyingly quiet island doing basically nothing, is my least favorite of his films. Even Death Becomes Her, despite its flaws, has grown on me thanks to its devilishly dark turns near plot’s end, and while I have some major moral and political reservations about Forrest Gump, I have to admit that the movie just plain works.
Cast Away, though, did something I’d never experienced with a Zemeckis movie — it bored me. I can handle long shots, long movies and extended sequences of little to no dialogue; I often quite enjoy survivalist stories (as an acquaintance in a Facebook comment said yesterday, they’re “a window into the nature of humanity…exploring what we are, what we need, and what we’re capable of”); I think Tom Hanks is a tremendous actor. But while I can appreciate the artistry that went behind this movie, I simply thought it didn’t work.
Ten years later, how do I feel about it after my first viewing since fidgeting uncomfortably at a movie theatre in the year 2000?
It’s about the same. I respect it, admire the chances it takes, but still find myself watching Tom Hanks spend over 90 minutes of a 150-minute film by himself on a terrifyingly quiet island doing basically nothing. It doesn’t surprise me at all to find out that it was Hanks’ idea in the first place, as I simply don’t see a lot of purpose in the film other than to capture a neat actor’s experiment. Every single thing that could have infused it with life and purpose seems to have been written out as a result of the 125 rewrites the screenplay went through, (So sayeth Zemeckis on the commentary track), and all we’re left with is an underwritten first act, a boring second act and a schmaltzy third act.
And no matter how many camera tricks you throw our way, Zemeckis, that doesn’t disguise the film’s glaring faults. Yes, the CGI is flawless, as usual. Zemeckis, much like Aronofsky and Greengrass today, seems to get it when it comes to computer effects, allowing them to serve the story and not the other way around, doing it in a virtually invisible way. But on the flipside, he’s starting to become a bit like George Lucas, where a director goes a little crazy with the control he has over his own films thanks to the staggering amount of technology at his disposal. After a while, they begin to feel less organic. I believe that mistakes are inherent in art, and if you tweak a movie to death, it loses its charm. That’s why I hope that, after his version of Yellow Submarine hits theatres, Zemeckis can step back from his tweaked-to-death motion capture films and return to live-action, just to see if he’s even capable of telling a story with a minimum of bells and whistles. Directors should challenge themselves. And I’m glad he tried with Cast Away, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
I think my biggest issue with the film can be considered problematic to those that hate formulas and “rules of screenwriting” and all that junk. Yes, I believe movies can be whatever they want to be, and no filmmaker should have to feel the need to stick to established rules, but Cast Away doesn’t feel like a full story to me. Feel free to completely dismiss my opinions at this point, but what’s the journey that Hanks’ Chuck Noland takes? What does it tell him about himself and his world? Almost zilch.
Let’s break this down. Does Chuck really learn anything by the end of the film, other than he can survive on an island for four years? He doesn’t do anything horrible to anybody in the first act for which he would have to repent, he seems to be a decent person in a good relationship, and he’s not over-reliant on technology. His only flaw is having to work on Christmas. There aren’t gigantic instances of symbolism on the island, and all hallucinations, which would do better to indicate Chuck’s battle with himself and his past, were once in the story but subsequently taken out completely. So this is simply the story of a regular man faced with an extraordinary situation, and he survives. Triumph of the human spirit? Not really. Thanks to the third act, it’s oddly nihilistic. Shit happens and life goes on? Great.
I don’t need a happy ending, and I think the movie’s biggest emotional wallop is Chuck’s fireside monologue at the climax, when he comes to terms with the present. I’m also glad that type of existential dread made it into a Hollywood A-list movie. However, I don’t think that’s what Hanks, Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles intended. Not in the way I’m reading it. And it took 150 minutes to tell me nothing.
I guess I got spoiled by my three theatrical viewings of 127 Hours last year, which is a fantastic movie brimming with life. Like Zemeckis, director Danny Boyle throws everything he had at the screen simply to make sure that his audiences weren’t getting bored watching a man stuck in a canyon, trapped by a rock, but it was in the service of some major themes and perhaps the greatest instance of cinematic catharsis in 2010. That film is about everything under the sun.
Do I need gigantic, life-affirming themes in my survivalist films? Hell to the no. But they have to be about something, and if a film purports to be about the insignificance of man in the universe, then tell that story. All or nothing, man.
-This still contains the most effective plane crash sequence on film.
-I am baffled as to how this made so much money. Yes, Tom Hanks is a major draw, and I don’t know one person who doesn’t like him as an actor, but… I don’t think the “survivalist demographic” is big enough on its own to bring this film’s box office to $200 million domestic. Did people really make this a megahit just because they wanted to see Tom Hanks act the shit out of it? According to Zemeckis, this was his lowest-tested movie ever, and afterwards he swore he was never going to do test screenings again, because for all intents and purposes based on the scores, this movie should have flopped. But, somehow, this got everybody’s attention, including, as he mentions, people who hadn’t gone to see a movie in months.
-Don’t think much about the technical aspects of film? Consider this: almost every single sound on the island (outside of the soundstage-bound cave) was done in post-production. These guys deserved their Oscar nomination, because that’s a monumental feat.
-The movie’s greatest accomplishment (aside from the plane crash sequence) is still getting us to feel bad for a bloodstained volleyball floating away.