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Cast Away

As I sat down to write this column, there were a number of television series’ that I thought about hitting on. There is the suddenly controversial and completely over-the-top sports docuseries WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKER DYNASTY and the engaging true-crime documentary THE INVISIBLE PILOT both airing on HBO Max, the unsettling true-crime doc CONFESSION TAPES: JOHN WAYNE GACY on Netflix, or the beginning of the end of one of the greatest shows in the history of television, BETTER CALL SAUL on AMC. I’m sure I’ll get to SAUL eventually, but my broken heart simply can’t face the truth at this time. The other aforementioned titles would certainly suffice, but I keep going back to a film I watched again this weekend for the first time in twenty years. I’ve continued thinking about it for days, and I think it might be time for you to revisit it as well.

Released in 2000, CAST AWAY instantly became ingrained within the pop culture lexicon. Robert Zemeckis’s harrowing tale of a deadline-driven Fed Ex employee’s survival on a deserted island not only featured Tom Hanks delivering what could arguably be his best performance to date, but also introduced the world to the most beloved inanimate character of all time, Wilson. From the moment the film opened on December 7, 2000, no one ever looked at a volleyball the same way again.

It is fascinating to look back at the “great” films of that particular era because not all of them hold up. Dialogue and jokes were slick in 2000 can certainly feel cringey two decades later, and special effects that seemed cutting-edge at the time can look a little preposterous now, particularly when presented in 4K clarity. As I sat watching CAST AWAY with my family, the thing that surprised me the most was how well it has aged. Sure, the first and third acts can’t hold a candle to what occurs from the moment Hanks’s Chuck Noland steps foot on his doomed flight until the moment his salvation comes, but even these moments pack more of a wallop than they did the first time around.

Noland is a globe trekking Fed Ex employee who values punctuality and the protection of the Fed Ex brand above most everything in his life. He takes time to call his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) in between package preps, and will even come home for Christmas dinner, but if duty calls (as it so often does) he is right back out the door again. Though he has every reason in the world to stay, he can’t bring himself to do so. Unfortunately for him, he’ll spend the next four years wishing he had.

Though there have been more disaster movies than I can possibly remember that have been released since CAST AWAY, and plenty of television series (LOST, THE WILDS, YELLOWJACKETS) that have featured intense plane crashes along the way, Zemeckis’s sequence remains as terrifying as ever. What begins as simple turbulence dissolves into violent mayhem, and viewers are given a number of unique and unsettling perspectives as the madness unfolds. I had remembered this moment in theaters, and that was one of my biggest concerns heading in. I thought it would, in retrospect, look staged and silly, and yet it was the complete opposite. It was every bit as remarkable now as it was then.

Obviously, Tom Hanks has provided some of the most memorable and beloved performances in the history of cinema. I don’t even need to list them here because you already know them, and they have spanned generations. Heck, in CAST AWAY you hear his voice before you see his face, and both of my kids at the same time yelled, “That’s Woody!” Though there can be endless debates as to which turn is the actor’s best, it’s impossible to not at least consider placing his harrowing portrayal as Chuck at the very top. For most of the production he shares the screen with nothing more than his tropical surroundings, and when he finally does get a proper co-star, it is a bloodied piece of sporting equipment. There are multiple scenes and sequences in which he does not utter a word, and yet, still finds a way to build emotionally complex moments that resonate with each viewer differently. He is the reason (paired with Zemeckis’s clever use of “reaction” shots) that we all cared so deeply for Wilson. Yes, he’s a volleyball, but he’s also Chuck’s only friend and savior. Even though I knew it was coming, his demise was still as devastating as ever, and judging by the torrent of tears streaming down my daughter’s face as Wilson majestically drifted in the ocean, it’s fair to say that this modern classic is as impactful now as it was the day it was released.


(Now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

RUN TIME: 2h 23min
GENRE: Adventure, Drama, Romance
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
WRITERS: William Broyles Jr.

Brian Miller