So, who ever said first impressions were important?
I’m not even sure I know why this movie stops my channel surfing almost without fail every time I come across it. The story behind its filming and the themes considered are far more compelling than what’s actually depicted on the screen. Chuck Noland’s (Tom Hanks) struggle to stay alive after being the only survivor of a small plane crash that leaves him washed ashore a deserted island examines the human instinct to simply live.
Castaway (2000) was filmed over an extended period to allow Hanks to go through the transformation required to portray a character that survives in isolation for a number of years on nothing but instinct and intelligence, as well as love for a woman. There are a few scenes that even I notice as rather special from a visual standpoint. At one point Noland shares the sea with a whale in such close proximity it makes the viewer’s pulse skip a beat or two.
But what has turned this film into a “new classic,” I believe, is how truly thought provoking it is. Castaway taps into the desire many, if not all, of us seem to have to strip away the amennities of modern life and live on a more basic level. One of the most memorable scenes is when Noland proudly proclaims, “I have made fire!” While no one would envy the circumstances under which he is forced to almost re-discover this rather basic element of life, the exhiliration he feels in overcoming what modern man would consider obstacles to create fire is something we do envy and draws us to the film.
Then, of course, there’s Wilson — the soccer ball that becomes Noland’s companion. As someone who has experienced feelings of isolation (due to a disability), I was intrigued by this element of the story. Sure, it was a bit contrived that Noland was a FedEx executive marooned with a few packages that made for good supplies, but the personification of this ball says a tremendous amount about our need for each other. The symbolism of Wilson face coming from Noland’s own blood could spawn at least an essay or two. We need companionship at all cost, it screamed. The man literally weeps at the thought of losing this ridiculous ball, and it’s completely believeable.
A related element is his beloved Kelly (Helen Hunt), whose memory he holds on to over the years as something worth fighting to live for. His longing for her serves as his motivation to stay alone. After years alone, he feels the same about her as he did the day his plane went down, and the way things play out is incredibly sad, yet again thought provoking. Without giving too much away, they’re both forced to accept the death of the love of their lives more than once.
Ultimately, the film tackles what even the strongest wills would have considered under such circumstances — suicide. In fact, it may be too ironic for some that his inability to devise a way to kill himself is what keeps him from the act, when he’s proven himself rather ingenius throughout the story. After his failed effort to commit suicide, one more thing washes ashore bringing him renewed hope. I mention that not to spoil anything, but because it leads to an overlooked line that should be considered a classic: he knew he had to “keep breathing . . . you just never know what the tide’s gonna bring.”
Castaway isn’t a perfect movie, and I’m not even sure its status as a “classic” will hold up. Its “crossroads ending” was a bit too tidy, and may be the films’ ultimate downfall from that lofty billing, but it is without question a film to make a point to watch.