Thursday, December 21, 2000
Rereading Daniel Defoe''s Robinson Crusoe--the godfather of all castaway adventures, including the new movie Cast Away--it''s striking how much of a message it contains. Written in 1719, the novel flatters its middle class audience in paragraph after paragraph, assuring them that they have it best, with neither the wants of the poor nor the cares of the rich. Defoe knew his readers would be the rising middle class, nurturers of the then-new art of the novel, so this praise is no surprise.
And the hero Crusoe is punished with exile on a tropical island precisely because he fights against joining the middle class and embarks on the voyages that shipwreck him. He had opportunities at home in York, England; he could have taken the employment that his merchant father promised to find for him. Throughout the pages of Robinson Crusoe are the apologies of the castaway, both to his absent father and to God for disobedience. He understands that he''s been put on the island to do penance for his sins of ambition. In a fever dream, Satan himself appears to remind Crusoe to be humble and repent.
Cast Away also puts its hero Chuck (Tom Hanks) on an island to punish him. His sin is working on Christmas. Though how, as a FedEx middle manager, is he supposed to avoid taking shifts during the busiest season? FedEx is practically a sponsor for this movie. The shipping company is so buttered up with product placements that it even permitted the depiction of one of its planes crashing. This disaster in the South Pacific leaves Chuck the only survivor on a beautiful but empty island (the locations, said to be south of the Cook Islands, are actually in the islands of Fiji.)
Crusoe''s island had everything he needed for life: herds of goats, grapes, citrus fruit, turtles for eggs and meat, and cats, a dog and a parrot for companionship. Cast Away is more realistic: Chuck has only coconuts and fish to eat. It''s a bloodier tale, too, and you can tell how bloody it will be when Chuck starts complaining of a bad tooth even before he gets on the fateful plane.
As a survival narrative, Cast Away is only a series of incidents and the craft of this castaway is less important than his pining for love. The film''s only real goal is finding a way for Chuck to escape and return to his fiancee, played by Helen Hunt, whose picture accompanies him to the island. Considering the part, Hunt plays it well enough. In one scene she reaches for her long-lost lover with a gentle familiarity that looked heartfelt. But Hanks, Gumping it up into numbness at the end, leaves you feeling hollow.
Cast Away''s mystifying last half hour crushes the audience under a pile of irony, from the way Chuck is forgotten almost as soon as he arrives, to the shrimp at the welcome-home buffet. (Didn''t the insensitive bastards realize he''d had enough fish to last him for life?) And the final scene--a steal from the plot of the classic comedy The Awful Truth--is played as drama, featuring Chris Noth as the year 2000''s answer to Ralph Bellamy.
Significantly, Chuck''s only companion on the island is a volleyball, whom he names "Wilson." It''s his little pet and he talks to it every day. Maybe the moral of Cast Away is that all that men can really trust are ballgames--everything else, work and women, leads to disappointment. Cast Away has panoramic scenes of the warm, wide ocean, and certainly it has appeal for an audience that wants to see surf and empty beaches during the dead of winter. But as a reminder of how lucky the middle class is, Cast Away fails. It never matches the lonely serenity of the beach with the pleasures of home. All Chuck had was a job haranguing Russian FedEx workers, or else duty-dinners with his fiancee''s family during the holidays. In Cast Away, there''s no median ground between hard, unappreciated white collar work and a primitive fight for life.
By blurring the distinction, Cast Away unwittingly says more about what it''s like to be middle class today than it intended.
Cast Away... (* * * )Rated: PG13
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Chris Noth
Where: Crossroads, Galaxy, Northridge Cinema
When: See Movie Times