Dec 29, 2000

Cast Away

Cast Away is one of those high-concept movies that gives you the shell of drama but not the content. This isn't a fantasy, but it might as well have been. A man who is constantly on the run gets marooned on a desert island for four years. Besides losing a lot of weight, he supposedly learns the right priorities in life, including how much he misses the girl he wanted to marry.

This film misses in so many ways. Ironically, a fantasy trigger might have helped here. This "realistic" set up is of course anything but. Nobody gets marooned on a desert island, which makes this set up seem even more contrived than the typical fantasy.

For this kind of life lesson film to work, the hero has to be someone at the beginning who is choosing to waste his life. True, this guy works for Fed-Ex and he's always on the clock. But he seems to be a very decent and caring man. And there is very little time up front for the audience to see the hero and his girlfriend together. You can't montage emotion. If you want the audience to care about a couple, you have to give them the screen time together. A few mousy grimaces by Helen Hunt won't cut it. (Why does Helen Hunt always looks like she's waiting to be hit?) Finally, this guy doesn't lose his girlfriend by his own wrong choices.

After this misguided set up, the movie enters an excruciatingly boring middle where there is no conflcit. Tom Hanks is a very engaging actor, and this movie certainly proves that a lot of people will pay to watch him hang out at the beach. But the audience shouldn't have to match this character's four year wait to experience how bored he must feel being alone on an island (known as the Boredom Fallacy).

As Hanks' character first awoke on the beach, I had vague hopes that we would get to see some variation of the Robinson Crusoe tale where a man must reinvent civilization. I was looking forward to what new twist Hanks would give to our current society. But, alas, all we get are the standard beats of a guy who has to find a way to survive on an island.

With the wrong set up, the end of the story doesn't pay off. I didn't care that Hanks old girlfriend is already married and has a child. I hardly knew her in the first place. It didn't matter that Hanks learned some great lesson in how to live life, because he wasn't that off base in the first place. Maybe he was too into his job, but the modern world is busy. Spending four years alone on a desert island doesn't make me any wiser about how to live in modern society.

Yes the man ends the film as clean slate, standing at a crossroads in the middle of an ocean of grass. And he may go back and see the attractive stranger whose package he delivered himself. Like a fantasy, this film needed to follow the three-part geometry that makes all social fantasy pay off. The hero's weakness up front, when worked through the forge of the hero's unique tasks in the fantasy world, is transformed and creates a new person. In Cast Away those three parts have virtually nothing to do with each other.