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Friday, Feb. 23, 2001

'CAST AWAY'

Paradise lost, and regained


For me, "Forrest Gump" was easily one of the most annoying films of the '90s. It waded straight into some of the most turbulent events in recent American history and came back with absolutely nothing to say about them. Given this, it was hard to get excited about the reunion of the "Gump" creative combo, star Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, in their new film "Cast Away."

Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis' "Cast Away"

Sometimes, though, it's great to be proven wrong: This one ain't half bad. Actually, "Cast Away" is more reminiscent of Zemeckis' "Contact," which showed the director to be brilliant when working as a visual storyteller (remember the opening radio-signals-into-space sequence?) In "Cast Away," his purely cinematic sequences are equally powerful, even virtuosic. But, again as in "Contact," this impact is diluted by some maudlin moralizing that strains to be profound. Fortunately, in "Cast Away," that's pretty much left to the coda, while the first two hours keep you enrapt.

"Cast Away" is your standard Robinson Crusoe situation, with Hanks getting stranded on an isolated, uninhabited South Pacific atoll. There's a nice twist in that Hanks' character, Chuck, is a FedEx manager who is a willing slave to the clock. Jetting back and forth between continents, he doesn't even have the time to properly propose to his love, Kelly (Helen Hunt), dropping a ring on her in the car before hopping onto another flight. This one he doesn't come back from, though; the flight veers off course over the Pacific, and goes down in some heavy weather, in what is undoubtedly the most terrifyingly realistic plane crash sequence ever (so don't expect to see this as an in-flight film).

Washed up on a desert island, Chuck finds himself struggling to deal with his situation. Here's where things get really interesting, as the film tosses the cliches and takes an entirely believable approach to the situation, asking simply: What do you do? Find food and water, of course, but exactly how do you crack open a coconut without losing the juice, or catch a fish without a line? Worse yet, how do you deal with a toothache? "Cast Away" focuses on the maddening necessity of having to do things that seem so simple and obvious -- until you actually have to figure them out.

The routine where Chuck starts talking to a volleyball (named "Wilson") seems silly at first, like a device enabling Hanks to verbalize to the audience after an hour of almost total onscreen silence. But a darker subcurrent is subtly revealed, showing us that an imaginary friend is all that stands between Chuck and total despair.

Hanks does give in to occasional mugging for the camera, but for the most part, he keeps the viewer on close rein, depicting Chuck's frustrations and small triumphs. In what is one of the most astounding physical transformations since De Niro in "Raging Bull," Hanks is almost unrecognizable by the time he tries to escape from the island, lean, grizzled and with a glimmer of madness in his eyes.

Zemeckis uses "Cast Away" as his bottle to float a Big Message about modern man, our addiction to work and speed, and an artificial society far removed from nature and our basic needs. Fortunately, Zemeckis doesn't pound on it as hard as Hanks does on those coconuts, letting the ironies speak for themselves.

The film's one misstep comes in Chuck's reunion with Kelly. This ending sequence just drags on and on, straining to deal with complex emotions and wrap things up in a tidy soundbite. What has Chuck learned after four years of desperate survival and isolation? Well, that "you gotta keep breathing. Tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide will bring?"

Throw in that lonely trumpet over weepy strings on the soundtrack, and the cliche-o-meter needle starts pushing the red.

Whatever. Zemeckis is a sucker for warm fuzzies, but you can overlook this overly sweet dessert when the main course was so satisfying. In the end, "Cast Away" doesn't really need any words to get its message across: As Chuck gazes up on the starriest sky he'll ever see, while knowing that he is utterly alone beneath it, the look in his eyes says it all.

"Cast Away" opens Saturday at Nihon Gekijo and other theaters.


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