The last time that Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis collaborated was on the hugely popular Forrest Gump, which won its star his second Oscar and continued Zemeckis' string of hit blockbusters. But, while reteaming must have seemed like a total no-brainer, this is no Gumpison Crusoe, - rather it's a surprisingly slight, modestly engaging update/spin on Daniel Defoe's classic, penned by Apollo 13 screenwriter William Broyles Jr from an idea by Hanks himself.
And, to be honest, it's not a bad one. After the opening half-hour's worth of navel-gazing exposition, the movie hits its stride, delivering the most knuckle-whitening aircraft smash since Alive. We're given a pilot's eye-view of a plane nose-diving into a thunderously churning ocean, with Noland tossed around inside. Then, of course, he's washed up on that desert island, but interestingly, he's not given much of a tropical paradise to inhabit. His isle is literally a rocky outcrop with a smallish beach and cave. There's no jungle to explore, no mammals to tame or eat, no Man Friday for company...
It's a smart touch, keeping the character even more self-contained than you'd expect, and the film makes much of his search for food, his desperation to make fire, and his inventive use of the few Fed Ex parcels that wash up on the beach with him. (You'll wonder what sort of deal the company struck for such extreme product placement - their logo has more screentime than Helen Hunt!)
Zemeckis has long pioneered the use of computer effects in his work, so to have one actor alone on an island for almost an entire movie represents a brave move for the helmer. For both men actually, with Hanks rarely off the screen for the film's two-and-a-half-hour-plus duration. However, while he conveys the isolation of his character with little dialogue and just a hint of madness, you rarely get past the fact it's simply Hanks the actor, not Noland the Fed Ex troubleshooter, who's stranded.
Okay, so he famously spent months growing a beard and losing 55lbs to authentically replicate his character's deterioration. But he's so porky to start with that, when we see him again, he doesn't appear that emaciated, and it makes you wonder why he went to such effort. Besides, tangly beard and dreads notwithstanding, he looks much the better for it.
At least Zemeckis graciously shows restraint with the conclusion and, while the final half-hour does drag, he spares us the more obvious, saccharine-coated nonsense, opting instead for something far more dignified. Still, there's no getting away from the fact that Cast Away is a long-winded reminder not to take your loved ones for granted.
Hanks is as watchable as ever and Zemeckis cements his rep as one of Hollywood's most proficient helmers. But given the talent, you'd be forgiven for expecting a more substantial film - and, despite the method fasting, a third Oscar looks unlikely for Hanks.