If you want to appreciate how good "Cast Away" is, just watch an old movie version of Daniel DeFoe's "Robinson Crusoe." It's tough pulling off a one-character show-so tough that even with his "man," Friday, Crusoe held our interest only part of the time.
But unless you count a volleyball with a bloody handprint on it nicknamed "Wilson," this one-man show by actor Tom Hanks is powerfully captivating. And it turns out the idea for this film was Hanks', who saw a 1994 TV interview in which Western writer Louis L'Amour talked about being marooned on a deserted island. The interviewer couldn't grasp why L'Amour wouldn't want to return to such an idyllic place, or even talk about it when prodded more. That got Hanks thinking about DeFoe's romanticized tale of a shipwrecked sailor who spends four years on an isolated island.
Soon afterwards, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") talked about updating the DeFoe story, but with a less romantic bent: no bounty of animals to hunt, no cannibals to threaten his existence, no mini-civilization with another human being to preside over, just the extreme loneliness, boredom, and encroaching insanity that comes from prolonged isolation.
On the commentary track, Zemeckis says that "Cast Away" wasn't the biggest sell-out film ever, when it comes to product placement. They wanted Fed Ex from the very beginning, because they thought that having a fake-name Hollywood company would jeopardize the believability of the screenplay. When they asked Fed Ex if they could use their name, Zemeckis said they could have refused. But what brainless boob of an executive would turn down this kind of mega-publicity?
Hanks plays Fed Ex exec Chuck Noland, a workaholic obsessed by time and getting deliveries to customers on-time. In the opening segments designed to unveil his personality, we see him descend upon Red Square like a plaque of locusts in order to preach the gospel of American efficiency to Fed Ex workers there. He's a high-strung Type-A who'd stop and smell the roses only if he had to re-box them to get the damaged goods delivered on time. Somehow, he manages to have a serious girlfriend (Helen Hunt), and as he leaves right before a holiday when he probably should have stayed, he gives her a small box with presumably a ring in it, while she gives him her grandfather's watch (there's that time element again). "I'll be right back," he says, which is the kiss of death for any character.
En route to Tahiti the Fed Ex plane crashes, and that sequence alone is a breathtaking bit of filmmaking. No survivors except Noland, no ship to plunder of its remaining bounty-just a few strewn Fed Ex packages that wash up on shore, including that now-famous volleyball. Wilson functions less like Friday and more like the skull in "Hamlet"--something to which the actor's monologues can be directed.
A less capable actor would still be on that island, for all we care. But Hanks is so darned talented that he holds our attention even as he does the most mundane things: learning how to build a shelter, capture rainwater, spear fish, start fires, and cope with isolation. We watch a paunchy Hanks transform into a skeletally lean bearded half-crazed man, right before our very eyes. A less capable actor could punt that volleyball and never make us believe it had the same impact as a fight between lovers. But Hanks? He's in a class by himself.
It helps too to have interesting cinematography. Zemeckis doesn't do as much wide-angle shots as you might expect for an island adventure, and that both tempers the romanticism of a South Seas island and creates an intimacy that enables us focus on the character and his psyche. It also helps that this 144-minute film was edited so tightly that we get a sense of time passing without having to feel the weight of time passing. That's perhaps one of the greatest achievements of this risky venture: it doesn't bore us the way that island life does Noland, which was something John J. Puccio observed in his DVD review as well. It's a film that entertains in spite of the audacious premise, and if any sections drag, it's not the ones on the island.
"Cast Away" was transferred to a 50GB dual-layered disc at 33mbps using MPEG-4 technology, so the picture looks very sharp, even in the many dark scenes. Though the cover information says this is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it's really 1.85:1, which stretches to fill the entire 16x9 widescreen monitor. Zemeckis' film gives us only the slightest graininess--a by-product of atmospheric conditions--and a good amount of detail. Run a side-by-side comparison with the DVD and you'll see just how much more impressive the picture quality is in 1080p. Black levels are particularly strong, and the edge detail just blows away the DVD.
The audio is a DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, with additional options in Spanish and French Dolby Surround and subtitles in English and Spanish. The sound comes alive mostly during the crash, but also during the water scenes, when even the gentlest lapping sounds so real and immediate that you half-expect your TV room floor to feel wet. It's the small sounds that make the biggest impact in HD.
On a commentary track featuring multiple bodies, the different voices at least identify themselves so we can appreciate their comments in context. Joining Zemeckis on the same commentary from the DVD are photography director Don Burgess, visual effects supervisors Ken Ralston and Carey Villegas, and sound designer Randy Thom. Of most interest are their discussions of what it took to keep the island looking uninhabited while still getting their shots. Production spanned a two-year period, and everyone was forced to wade in the water from shot to shot to avoid getting footprints in the sand. Hotels were on another island, so the cast and crew had to get up at 4:30am just to make the one-and-a-half boatride to work. It's an interesting, if low-key commentary.
This release probably should have been a two-disc affair. Fans will have to hang on to their DVDs, because missing on the Blu-ray are a long segment of Hanks appearing on "The Charlie Rose Show," theatrical and TV trailers (only one is included here, in HD), a making-of feature, three featurettes on survival, the island, and Mr. Wilson, and storyboard sequences.
What we get, instead, is a Blu-ray exclusive pop-up trivia track-the worst trivia track I've seen thus far. The entries are dull, there's too much time between pop-ups, and they remain on-screen so long that even the poorest reader could get through it twice. Add to that some suspect placement that really intrudes on the screen image, and you get a mess that's better ignored.
When I first reviewed this film years ago, I was so bowled away by Hanks' performance that I gave it the equivalent of an 8. Watching it again, though, it's painfully obvious that the "civilization" sections that frame this survival tale just don't have the same impact as the film's core. Come on, I kept thinking, get to the crash, get to the good stuff! I wish that all of the film's 144 minutes were spent alone with Hanks. Those weaker sections knock it down to a still watchable 7 out of 10.