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Cast Away****

I did not expect to see another film from the year 2000 as good as Traffic, but this is it. Robert Zemeckis' new movie--from an original screenplay by William Broyles Jr.--begins with a vision of advanced capitalist life as a time management hell. Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) is a high-ranking FedEx executive obsessed with efficiency, a minister of the Gospel According to Frederick Winslow Taylor. In a scene at a Christmas dinner, he declares about one of his company's new schemes, "It's a perfect combination of systems management and technology!" But for whom? Human beings or cyborgs? To heighten the irony, Nolan first appears preaching his doctrines to former citizens of the USSR in Moscow, now working for the huge American corporation he represents instead of a state owned enterprise with slightly less demanding standards. 

Perhaps the best short phrase to describe Cast Away would be "putting things in perspective". While Nolan is on his way to a new assignment, his plane crashes in a deserted area of the South Pacific, and he is violently thrust into a new, unknown environment--a tropical island on which he is the sole inhabitant. (I should mention in passing that the crash sequence is about the most frightening thing of its kind I have ever seen in a theatrical motion picture. It is definitely not to be recommended to anyone who suffers from fear of flying.) For the major part of the film--corresponding to a period of four years in his life--Nolan remains shipwrecked on the island, until he finally constructs a raft and ventures out on the open seas. Ultimately, he finally makes it back to the United States and the welcoming arms of his employer after being picked up by a freighter bearing a huge load of containerized cargo.

In previous movies, Zemeckis has filmed characters who stood in an intrinsically eccentric relation to their environment: in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? it is the two dimensional Toons living in a world populated by three dimensional humans; in Forrest Gump, it is the protagonist who wanders through famous scenes of twentieth century history like Simplizissimus adrift in the ravaged landscape of Germany in the Thirty Years War. In Cast Away Zemeckis achieves the same effect of estrangement but by starting with a completely "adjusted" character who is then pulled out of his familiar world by a terrifying accident.

The film does not plunge Nolan into a back-to-nature utopia that provides a happy contrast to his routinized corporate existence. Last year's abominable The Beach had prostituted whatever remains of the Romantic myth of escaping to a desert isle, but Zemeckis wisely distances himself from that myth as much he avoids the execrable "dramality" of Survivor. Instead, Cast Away goes back to the eighteenth century, to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, to the second Discourse of J.-J. Rousseau and Denis Diderot's Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville, with their provocative speculations about the origins of human culture. In this context, a horrifying episode in which Chuck has to use a ice skate to extract an infected tooth more recalls a rite of passage like tattooing or circumcision than emergency surgery.

Cast Away neither depicts nature as a kindly nurturing mother nor as "red in tooth and claw," but as an impersonal, implacable power that forces sentient beings to yield to its demands or perish. The film offers a vivid dramatic presentation of the total indifference of the natural world to the human one early on, when Nolan tries to escape from the island using an inflatable raft, and the waves relentlessly pound him back. This environment submits Chuck, who is happiest living in a world where everything can be "managed", to a review course in social institutions like tool-making and food-gathering whose beginnings lie so far back in history they are simply taken for granted in the FedEx world--the one which is always "on time". 

Yet in being forced to repeat the development of the race, Chuck's most remarkable experiences have less to do with the way he develops his survival skills than how he attempts to create a humanly livable environment for himself--most conspicuously in the way he transforms a Wilson AVP volleyball into a companion he names after the ball's manufacturer. In fact, the most poignant moment in the movie occurs when "Wilson" is lost at sea, and Chuck suffers as if it were the loss of another living being. Yet it is by no means insignificant that this anthropo-metamorphosis can only take place after he has marked the ball with a bloody handprint in a fit of rage when he cuts himself badly while attempting to start a fire by rubbing sticks together, a handprint he further alters by turning it into a smiling face. Later, he goes further by bestowing a head of hair made of strands of wild grass on "Wilson" .

Survivalism, which feeds both upon a nostalgic desire to return to the days of the frontier as well as apocalyptic projections of the future, has been in vogue for several decades now. Yet Cast Away is as much as anything an implicit critique of survivalist ideology. If the movie does not present life in a state of nature as a paradisiacal alternative to the "civilized" life depicted in the opening scenes neither does it use the former as means of glorifying the triumphs of technological progress in comparison to the one Thomas Hobbes described in Leviathan as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". But if there are no obvious answers in Cast Away, the underlying question the film raises is whether the rage of human beings to impose their image on the environment may be less a manifestation of their desire to dominate nature than of their need to create a world which is a dwelling place as much as a refuge from hostile natural forces.  

By changing a volleyball into a friend or by decorating the walls of his cave with crude pictures of his fiancée that resemble archaic glyphs, Chuck is responding to a need that cannot be explained in terms of utility. The prototype of invention here is not the tool but the work of art. And Cast Away clearly makes the point that such a product can only come into existence through sacrifice--through the shedding of Chuck's blood. However, this is not only the process by which an industrially manufactured object comes to be Chuck's man Friday, but much more the process by which the pain that overwhelms him from the beginning--the instant it is no longer filtered out by the protective devices of centuries of human effort--is itself transformed into something that transcends his wretched life on the island.

It would be easy--perhaps too easy--to view Cast Away as a kind of adventure film. (I have no doubt that the combination of adventure and Tom Hanks in the starring role account for the picture's huge success at the box office.) But watching Cast Away, I was much more reminded of Robert Bresson's great A Man Escaped (1956), about how a member of the French Résistance during World War II who has been condemned to death succeeds in escaping from prison, than I was of any conventional adventure story. Although Bresson's movie has quite bit of suspense, it mainly focuses on the inner drama of a character who is for the most part cut off from contact with the outside world and who has to fall back upon his own resources. Chuck, it is true, is no prisoner in the usual sense of the word, but his situation--at once thrown into the wide open spaces but at the same time completely isolated from humankind-- makes him even more abjectly a prisoner than Fontaine (François Letterier), the hero of A Man Escaped.

Like A Man Escaped, Cast Away is more a drama of reflection than one of adventure. And just as the Bresson refuses to abridge the continuing challenges to which the protagonist must respond into a series of colorful incidents that whirl by on the screen, Zemeckis' film gives a powerful resonance to each of Chuck's gestures. The film has been criticized for the slow pace of the island sequence, but as far as I can see Cast Away only gains by the necessary shift in tempo that happens after Chuck is stranded. The movie's strength lies not in bombarding the viewer with heavy-handed effects but in the way it patiently leads up to the devastating conclusion which pursues the trajectory of Chuck's odyssey after his return home and leaves him at both a literal and figurative crossroads.

Like Zemeckis' most recent production, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away was photographed by Don Burgess. But where the previous work evoked the stylistic elegance of a Hitchcock thriller, the new film is simplicity itself--a simplicity that is at some moments almost terrifying--and most  impressively simple in the island sequence with its powerful vistas of water and sky in the South Pacific, images that bring to mind F.W. Murnau's masterpiece, Tabu (1931) or even the Gauguin paintings that were a source of inspiration for Murnau himself. Nothing here gets in the way of the unfolding of the fable. But it would not be fair to give due credit to Tom Hanks, who appears in nearly every scene and contributes immeasurably to the movie's artistic achievement. After Saving Private Ryan, Hanks seems destined to become the James Stewart of his generation, the actor who personifies the not quite so average American guy for the audience, and it would be difficult to imagine a more appropriate performer for the role of Chuck.

What Lies Beneath was brilliant for its first two-thirds but fumbled badly when it came to the denouement. Cast Away doesn't miss a single beat right up to the final shot. If Traffic primarily owes its strength to Steven Soderbergh's fluid, elliptical style, Cast Away is equally indebted to a far more traditional style of American film making, one that relies upon a very linear narrative and a carefully calculated approach to constructing a motion picture. Robert  Zemeckis more than adequately demonstrates just how brilliantly effective that style still can be when used by a talented and conscientious director. 

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