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Hanks shines in otherwise dim film
Plodding action maroons 'Cast Away'
(CNN) -- The long-anticipated "Cast Away" is the first reteaming of director Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks since the two made cinematic gold with 1994's award-winning, box office monster "Forrest Gump."
Based on a concept from Hanks himself, "Cast Away," is meant to be a metaphor for stripping away (or casting away) all the trappings of a normal, modern existence, thereby finding out what is truly important in life.
In a breathtaking performance, wrapped in a flawed and poorly paced film, Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx systems engineer whose life is ruled by the clock as his demanding job propels him across the world with hardly a second's notice. He and his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) schedule their rare moments together like military generals planning the split-second timing of a major invasion.
His manic life comes to an abrupt halt as he's flying to Tahiti in a FedEx plane, which crashes during a storm over the South Pacific. In a harrowing and wonderfully executed scene, the camera never leaves Hanks' point-of-view as the aircraft plunges into the ocean. Miraculously, he finds an inflatable raft and pops to the surface as the burning machine sinks under stormy seas. It is a terrifying sequence, nearly worth the price of admission alone.
Lost, alone, lonely
Now begins the long, long period of the film in which Noland finds himself washed up on the beach of a deserted island. Noland, whose executive skills are of little use here, must learn to survive against all odds.
Only Hanks' phenomenal skills as an actor make bearable this interminable, laborious stretch of the story. With little dialogue and mind-numbingly dull, repetitive scenes, Hanks depicts his character learning to fish, make fire and store water.
At this point Noland finds a number of FedEx packages washed up on the beach. One contains a volleyball he names "Wilson," after the ball's brand name. He becomes deeply attached to it, sharing his deepest thoughts with his inanimate friend. This is a cagey device, one allowing the audience to hear what Noland is thinking as he sinks ever deeper into despair.
Flash forward four years. Noland (in a much-publicized transformation in which Hanks took a year off production to lose weight and grow an enormous beard) is no longer the pudgy tenderfoot castaway. He's lean and weather-beaten, a veteran of survival living.
But we're still on that damn island with Hanks and that stupid volleyball.
Back to sea
Just surviving is not really living, and Hanks conveys that desperation beautifully with simple gestures and deeply expressive eyes devoid of all hope.
Finally, Noland makes a desperate decision: He cannot stand the isolation any longer, and must leave his his island home. He builds a makeshift raft and launches himself back into the sea. After another harrowing journey, he's rescued just as the ocean threatens to swallow him. Noland is back among the living.
This is where the film gets interesting again, just as the storyline is wrapping up.
That leaves so many strong emotional opportunities hanging out to dry. How does Noland feel to have escaped death? What about his family and friends, and their reactions? His girlfriend has moved on with her life and gotten married, but their attempts at a doomed reconciliation are sketchy at best.
This screenplay by William Broyles Jr. crackles in opening sequences set in Moscow, Memphis, Tennessee (FedEx's and Noland's home base), and during that spectacular plane crash. But so much screen time has been squandered on that bleak island -- underlining again and again the character's isolation and hopelessness -- that the story never regains its momentum.
The production design and Alan Silverstri's musical score are outstanding, as is the direction from Zemeckis. The acting, especially by Hanks, is top rate; call it Stanislavski on the beach.
The marquee value of the names involved and the guaranteed Academy Award buzz it will generate probably will keep this film afloat at the box office.
But in terms of story and pacing, the whole of "Cast Away" is a lot less then the sum of its parts.
"Cast Away" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated PG-13. 142 minutes.
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