The fantasy of surviving on a deserted island is an evergreen theme. For this reason alone, Cast Away feels like a film that will always speak to us, and its beautifully executed script and Tom Hanks’ astonishing performance reward repeated viewings even 20 years after its release. The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a study in extreme contrasts, opening and closing on windswept Texan prairie but spending most of its run-time on a storm-tossed island in the South Pacific. Chuck Noland (Hanks), transforms from a chubby, clock-obsessed striver into a wizened hermit with a haunted stare. Both his surroundings and his character have been radically altered by the end, and that’s been the basic formula for good storytelling since campfire days.

The film’s opening 20 minutes are a marvel of tight exposition and characterization. The camera eye travels with a FedEx box from rural Texas to wintry Moscow where we’re dropped into a warehouse as Chuck attempts to cajole his Russian employees into working more efficiently. With his every word and gesture, Hanks paints a portrait of a career-driven control freak, and the viewer’s foreknowledge of his fate attaches a wince to every scene. The glimpses of details evoke the dread of a horror movie–Don’t take off your watch! Grab that pocketknife! Leave your shoes on!–and the shocking plane crash during a storm over the Pacific is riveting cinema.

As skillfully told as those opening scenes are, it’s intriguing to imagine an alternate edit of the film that would completely elide anything about Chuck before or after the island. Keep the bookends of the FedEx package being sent by the artsy lady, and then Chuck delivering the unopened package to her dusty ranch at the end. Cut the rest about Chuck and his fiancée, Kelly (Helen Hunt). After all, everything essential about his character and background is revealed through his actions on the island.

It’s in the 90-minute stretch of island living–nearly free of dialogue–that the film feels transcendent. Chuck could be anyone, of any background, but to watch his struggle is to empathize and measure yourself against him. His cleverness and work ethic seem to serve him well, although he seems to lose patience quickly, and continually injures himself through stubbornness. How many of us would have the guts to knock out a sore tooth with a rock and the edge of an ice skate? How about charting the months by mapping the movements of sunlight on a cave wall? Or conversing with a blood-stained volleyball?

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Wilson is the heart of the movie. Starting off as a good luck totem, the volleyball with the bloodied hand print becomes Chuck’s alter ego. It cajoles him, reminds him of things he’d rather forget, and pushes his buttons–all unspoken, within Chuck’s mind. Wilson is the part of Chuck that he can no longer contain within himself as the rest of his character is boiled down to pure survival instinct. This is why Wilson’s departure as they drift out to sea is so gut-wrenching. The volleyball bobs away on the waves and Chuck flails after it, at risk of losing his raft, screaming, “Come back! I’m sorry!” He knows that he has lost himself, and it’s only when he’s finally lost everything and given up that rescue arrives.

Everything after that is anticlimax. Wilson’s loss renders Chuck’s reunion with Kelly in the final act underwhelming. He tells her, “You were with me on that island,” but that doesn’t really feel true. Her photo was there in his timepiece, but it was Wilson who was at his side the whole time. For those of us who have been trapped with our own selves in quarantine for so long, it’s a familiar and poignant feeling. And yet the lure of Cast Away is as strong as ever. Even in the throes of social isolation, the fantasy of absolute solitude–testing oneself against nature, and against one’s own mind–remains intoxicating.

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