Hanks again astounds us in "Cast Away," Zemeckis' hymn to the human spirit. 

Soul Survival

More a metaphysical journey than a traditional adventure story, "Cast Away" offers another tour-de-force performance from Tom Hanks as he reunites with his "Forrest Gump" director, Robert Zemeckis. But this time the talented collaborators aren't concerned with one ordinary man's brush with fame and pop culture over the span of time. Instead, Hanks and Zemeckis explore loneliness, frustration and despair as one man learns an extraordinary lesson in what it means to be human when all humanity is missing. This epic tale of survival provides discriminating viewers with a thoughtful, provocative 143 minutes in the dark. Remarkably out-of-tune with current Hollywood releases — especially at holiday time — "Cast Away" consistently flies in the face of convention. While its theme may appear to retread the oft-told tale of "Robinson Crusoe," the visual experience is anything but another fish-out-of-water conceit. There's also the added pleasure of dealing only with Hanks' survival. After months of being bombarded with the petty Machiavellian strategies of Richard and Susan and Gervase, or any of those other annoyingly faux TV survivors, it is refreshing to witness a true professional push the fine line between truth and illusion. Though we never lose sight of the artifice we are watching with "Cast Away," what's most impressive is that we don't care. Hanks' performance and Zemeckis' camera create an exhausting, compelling synergy that's hard to dismiss as mere make-believe. "Cast Away" begins in a rush with Fed-Ex system engineer Chuck Noland (Hanks) jetting off at a moment's notice to far-flung corners of the globe to fix problems. "Never lose track of time," he preaches to his employees, time and time again. As Zemeckis' camera follows the clock-challenged Noland, the screen is filled with busy, bustling scenes of actors in motion. But then, while on a trip to Tahiti, the unthinkable happens — an explosion sends Chuck's plane crashing into turbulent waters. Here, Zemeckis' camera never loses sight of Chuck's point of view. With its frightening realism, we watch as Hanks' character clings to an inflated raft; the direness of his straits illuminated by the crack and flash of lightning. Against all odds, Chuck survives, washing ashore on an uninhabited volcanic island in the middle of nowhere. As the days pass and the chance of rescue grows more remote, Chuck begins to accept his plight, turning his attention to surviving. As "Cast Away" laboriously tracks Chuck's methodical approach to problem solving, Fed-Ex packages from the crash begin to wash ashore, filled with the impractical trappings of society. But Chuck puts each to use, none more intriguingly than the Wilson volleyball he turns into his boon companion. After nearly an hour's worth of silence, both Chuck and the audience eagerly embrace "Wilson." Then comes the abrupt title card that reads "Four Years Later." And the change in Chuck goes far deeper than the much-publicized, physical transformation Hanks underwent for the role. Hanks manages to show us a mental metamorphosis as well, moving Chuck from a desperate man without hope to a man who knows surviving is not the same as living. Eventually, Chuck and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. hit upon a way off the island. Once more perilously caught in the whirling whim of the sea, Chuck is rescued. Cleanshaven and slimmer, he's whisked back to Memphis and his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt in a small but pivotal role). But just when the movie seems about to let us see the value of all Chuck learned, the narrative winds down. Where's the culture shock he must endure? How does he resume his life when family and friends have moved on, married or passed away? How can he reconnect with a woman who mourned and buried him four years ago? More importantly, why did "Cast Away" spend so much time on the island, showing us Chuck learning the minutiae of survival, if the intention wasn't to give these heartfelt scenes of reunion and reassimilation equal emotional depth? Despite Zemeckis' inventive visual expression and Hanks' incredibly involving performance, "Cast Away" left me feeling emotionally marooned. While I applaud the filmmakers' unorthodox and un-Hollywoodlike ending, I wanted Chuck's experience to count for more.

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