If I didn't know any better I'd say that this film was written in order for Tom Hanks to win yet another Academy Award. Yikes! He may pull it off. What better vehicle to do it with than one in which he's all alone for about 80% of the movie? I think he's holding the option on the "everyman" character that so smoothly pulls you along through every travail and emotion. This guy's a national treasure.
He's Chuck Noland, a workaholic FedEx troubleshooter (talk about product placement!) to whom everything runs on a schedule and with the utmost efficiency. He is deeply in love with Kelly, his fiance (Helen Hunt) to whom he proposes before he takes off on a trip. The plane goes down in a storm and he's the lone survivor, washed up on a bleak island in the center of an atoll. About all he finds to subsist on are coconuts. After several frustrated tries, hunger leads him to solve the problem of how to husk and break into them.
Meanwhile, he collects FedEx parcels that wash up on the beach, sorting them into separate piles like a good FedEx shipper, and leaving them intact so that they might ultimately reach their destinations.
No boy scout, he must learn more survival skills to stay alive. He spears sand crabs but they're distasteful raw. In a well modulated series of steps, he learns how to make fire, and dances in celebration of his accomplishment before he sits down to his first cooked meal on the island.
Despairing of a rescue, he must figure out how to get beyond the huge breakers that form around the atoll, making him a virtual prisoner. He must also learn how to retain his sanity. Finally, perhaps realizing that he's going to be there for awhile, he opens the FedEx parcels (save one) to see what he has to work with. For food, he uses a net from a dress to capture fish. For sanity, he draws a face on a blood stained volley ball and dubs it "Wilson", his newfound and dearest friend, whom he talks to and hears responses from.
Four years go by, during which he is transformed from an overweight overcomfortable city dweller into a sleek, buff, island survivor. A rather extraordinary behind-the-scenes aspect of allowing for Hank's physical transformation is that production on "Cast Away" was suspended while he shed 40 pounds. During that layover, director Bob Zemeckis ("Back to the Future", "Death Becomes Her", "Forrest Gump") actually shot "What Lies Beneath", a whole other film! But Hanks didn't just go on a diet. It's clear from his muscular build that he did some intense weight training. These are the commitments some actors make to the veracity of their film roles. As a weight trainer I can tell you: not every actor would have been able to achieve such impressive results in four years.
Besides the body reformation, his survival skills have become considerable, and he's able to successfully spear fish, providing himself with much needed protein. He also embarks on building a raft, partly from the plastic enclosure of the airplane's head that washed up on the beach. His objective is to build it strong enough to penetrate that wall of water he must confront and conquer in order to escape.
But even if he can leave the island, will he ever find rescuers on the great expanse of ocean that awaits him? And, should he ever make it back, will his fiance be waiting? In all the years he's lived on the island, he hasn't gone to sleep without looking at a picture of her in a watch she gave him as a gift. He realizes that removal from his society and his life has produced changes he can only guess at and which might be profound. What price will he pay for being "cast away"?
In order to make this a realistic look at surviving on a desert island, (not Gilligan's Island), screenwriter William Broyles worked with survivalists in Mexico to learn what he needed for the script. One challenge for an essentially one actor lost-on-a-deserted-island picture is repetition and boredom. The going does get tedious for the audience but the filmakers can argue that this creates a visceral identification with the ill-fated hero. Be that as it may, time on the island is overlong.
And, talking about committments, Hanks was recently admitted to a Los Angeles hospital to be treated for a blister that he obtained on the island. It had become infected because all the water work made it impossible to keep properly dressed.
Helen Hunt plays the long-suffering fiance just fine, but this is a thankless, second-banana role to the character that dominates the screen and our involvement from start to finish. But, no need to sympathize. What screen time she doesn't get here this ubiquitous lady more than makes up for in the half dozen or so other films she made in 2000.
Estimated cost: $90,000,000. Projected U.S. boxoffice: $230,000,000.
Rated E, for Endurance.