Sunday, April 24, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part XIII: The sun will rise


Movies about existential terror don't come much better than this one, and in the rare case they actually do, it's only because they're the same movie, except set in space.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by William Broyles, Jr.
With Tom Hanks (Chuck Noland), Helen Hunt (Kelly Frears), Chris Noth (Dr. Jerry Lovett), and Wilson (himself) (yes, he's really credited)

Spoiler alert: high

Robert Zemeckis never did anything better than Cast Away.  Any insinuation otherwise is either based on some seriously idiosyncratic metrics (as it would have to be, if one were to instead choose, for example, Roger Rabbit), or it's based on misplaced nostalgia (whether that be Gen X/Millennial nostalgia for the celluloid dreams of their childhoods, in the case of Back to the Future or its sequel, or if it instead concerns Baby Boomers' nostalgia for their young adhulthoods, in the case of Forrest Gump).  And at least those movies are operating on the same level; any other choice would simply be so obviously wrong that it doesn't bear engaging with.  Likewise (although one may more reasonably differ) it's also the best thing Tom Hanks ever did, either in terms of "this is the best performance Tom Hanks ever rendered in a movie, and wow, I know, right?"; or, more strongly, "This is the best movie Tom Hanks ever took part in, period—and, yeah, holy shit."

I lead with this to let you know exactly where I stand, even if the rest of the review, which I expect shall be composed principally of embarrassingly effusive praise, would probably have made that clear eventually.

The film tells the story of a man.  His name is Chuck Noland—something that's easy enough to forget, albeit probably on purpose, since even though I've seen Cast Away eight or nine times, I still had to double-check that to make sure I got it right.  He is a capable everyman figure, however, moreso at the turn of the millennium than today (but, not for nothing, the film actually begins in 1992); specifically, Chuck is a harried middle-manager at FedEx, who jets across the world delivering abrasive motivational speeches concerning the importance of time.

At home, when he is at home, he's been making his nest in Memphis, Tennessee, where Chuck has found himself in a comfortable courtship, so close to marriage that it just needs to be tipped in that direction, with a grad student named Kelly Frears.  But, in the midst of the holiday season, Chuck is called upon to attend to problems in the sprawling FedEx empire.  Hitching a ride on a parcel transport in the middle of the night, Chuck has just enough time to propose to his girlfriend before boarding his flight, claiming he'll "be right back," and immediately slamming headfirst into the Pacific Ocean at two hundred miles an hour.  Chuck alone survives to tell the tale, although to whom he'll tell it remains to be seen, since once he washes ashore on a tiny isle, he finds himself utterly alone, unlikely to be rescued, and—not to put too fine a point on it—cast away.

For the next four years—or, by his count, 1500 days and nights—Chuck fights to survive his primitive purgatory.  He does, and although there are setbacks—many setbacks—the human capacity to bend the natural world to the human will remains impressive, even in this specimen so typical of the late 20th century.  And yet Chuck knows, in his heart, that the only choice he has in the end is to resign himself to dying here, or risk everything on one chance to return.  It's not that much of a choice, really; but it all comes down to waiting, hoping for the right materials to wash up on shore.  When they do, he makes his bid for the survival of his soul—and he wins.  And that's when he finds that his life really did end the day that plane went down.  What he's returned to isn't home, but an emptiness little different in kind from that of the island.  He is faced with a new choice—the choice we all make every day, whether we know it or not.

There's not much more to add to this summary: the themes are right there on the surface, staring you in the face in every single frame—though it's plainest of all in a final third that refuses to give Chuck the happy ending he deserves and pitches him instead headlong into the void.  It's as simple, and as profound, as any movie you'll ever watch, albeit done up with a natural entertainer's well-honed sense of pace, and leavened with a dollop of formalism.

Possessed, then, of a crystal-clear tripartite structure, each part of Cast Away receives its own style: the first is done almost entirely in handheld (the rest is done with cameras bolted onto moving objects, in the film's only really ugly shots); the second, largest part features a static, locked-down camera, in imitation of the eye of a lazy God.  Limited mainly to tilts and pans, sometimes it seems like it's not even interested in Hanks, or, really, anything at all.  Finally, in the last half hour, which is (naturally) the most dramatically conventional act in terms of storytelling, we return to Zemeckis' default classicism.

Each part also receives its own specific sound, and this is even more interesting, even if I think it might be less rigorous: the first gets diegetic pop songs and the buzz of human activity; the last finds Alan Silvestri's elegaic, kick-you-when-you're-down score cuing up the very moment that Chuck leaves his island; but the most fascinating part is clearly the center of the film, which has the impression of cosmic loneliness without ever simply being quiet.  Here, we find Chuck's new world filled with rain and waves and evil coconuts; and these sounds become the tuneless accompaniment to his new mode of life.  Randy Thom, et al, were extended an Oscar nomination for their unique and sublime sound design on Cast Away.  And they lost, to fucking Gladiator—a fine, fine film, to be sure, and a film with the kind of well-trod soundscape that was more-or-less perfected back in the 1950s.  This is the one to bring up if you ever need to make the point that the Academy Awards are, by-and-large, a travesty.

Although I should warn you that making this point with the Oscar for Best Sound for a movie released 16 years ago will also mark you, quite accurately, as a nerd.

But, in regards to that erstwhile score, the swell of Silvestri's orchestra hits you like a ton of bricks.  Even though I have a somewhat difficult time linking the preceding absence of score (including in the first act) to a completely solid intellectual grounding, it's surely worthwhile as a signal to the viewer that, yes, it's okay to start crying now.  Of course, you're likely have started crying much earlier than that, given that every moment of the hour and a half Chuck spends on the island is designed to keep you permanently on the brink of tears.  (Of course, as for that Silvestri-heavy last half hour, I personally spend almost the entire time copiously weeping, occasionally yelling at the screen, "It's just so Goddamned sad!")

In any event, the sound's definitely more noticeable.  When it comes to the shooting style, that's partly me taking Zemeckis at his word, even if I really shouldn't, given that there are plenty of shots that break the style.  But by the time Chuck gets to the island—indeed, some minutes before, with cinema's greatest airplane crash—I've become far too invested in the story to really pay strict attention to the bona fides of Zemeckis' form.

And before that, of course, it's slightly easy to not pay strict attention to anything.  It almost reaches the level of making a point, but if Cast Away has one weakness—I'm not entirely ready to concede it does—it's that the opening half-hour is a tiny bit of a slog.  The film has a bitter need to depict Chuck's definition of normalcy—and to set up its rhyming denouement—but it can't be denied that our first impression of Chuck is that he's kind of a tool.  And if our introduction to Chuck isn't exactly calculated to make you fall in love, then our first impression of his movie—and this never entirely fades, even on the island—is that it's an incredibly expensive commercial for a delivery company.

And it is both the best and the worst commercial one might devise.

Well, Chuck had to work for somebody who would put him on a doomed flight to God knows where.  No, I decided long ago that there's just not that much to be honestly bothered by in Cast Away's engagement with our material culture—up to and including that pointedly-branded volleyball, chosen mostly because its manufacturer possessed a name that an actor wouldn't feel foolish if he were asked to scream it at the top of his lungs, like he'd just lost the most important piece of his soul.  Not an easy task in the best of cases.

But then, Tom Hanks can do anything: gain and lose fifty pounds in a year; grow an amazing beard; and project so much of his own personality onto a volleyball that you feel like your fucking parents died, when Wilson ultimately gets lost at sea.  (And yet it really is worth pointing out that Wilson's actually only in the movie for about a half hour.  Whereas Hanks has been talking to himself already for the entire duration of his exile—much as a human being might do.  Take that, J.C. Chandor, you crank.)

Either way, Hanks is the show, and even though Chuck never completely coheres as a character, this is perhaps the best choice Hanks and Zemeckis could possibly make—whatever he had before he got to the island only winds up getting destroyed in the process of surviving it anyway.  (The image of Hanks that we get after the cut that takes us to "four years later"—tauter, hairier, and as iconically bad-ass as you'll ever see him—is certainly hard-earned.  All it cost Chuck was his life.)  Helen Hunt, in a fine if somewhat thankless supporting turn, deserves some credit for making Chuck feel rounder than he's written; and, hell, Chris Noth, as Kelly's new husband, helps in his own way too.  (Indeed, one of Cast Away's most underrated charms is how cool these people are in this difficult situation; there is not a single moment of tedious sexual proprietorship in Cast Away, and everyone involved appears to know how completely insoluble their problems are.)

But it's always Hanks in Cast Away, and it's Hanks who makes the tragicomic style of William Broyles' screenplay, and especially Zemeckis' direction, come alive.  It's Hanks who drives home every beat of loss that their universe throws at him.  (Almost trivially, Cast Away is the most engaging depiction of PTSD I've ever seen.)

Cast Away represents the conclusion and pinnacle of Zemeckis' other, even greater trilogy—and I'm surprised that it seems that hardly anyone's taken a look and realized that Forrest Gump, Contact, and this all add up to one of the finest thematic trilogies ever wrought.  I'm not sure what I'd call it: his Philosophical Pessimist Trilogy, perhaps.  They're all of a piece, each concerned in their own way with the meaning (and meaninglessness) of existence.  Each finds Zemeckis at his apex as a filmmaker, too, both technically and in terms of his personal artistic sensibility, especially with Gump and with Cast Away (maybe less obviously in the latter case, but not one whit less completely). Each of those two films take Zemeckis' inveterate zaniness, and turn that absurdist attitude toward an examination of the consequences of existence in a cruel and arbitrary world.  Further, each of the three films (and this absolutely includes Contact) is a superb work of first-person perspective; each one is designed to underscore our essential human aloneness.  And, sure, it would be nice if each shared the same aspect ratio—but, hey, you can't win 'em all.

Finally, each asks surprisingly difficult questions for Hollywood fare, and although none of them could be said to end upon a note of hopelessness—even if Cast Away in particular comes quite terrifyingly close—their wisdom is shown in their failure to really answer those questions.

Cast Away cuts the closest, I think, to the heart of the human problem: it asks, essentially, "Why do we bother?"  In doing so, it relies upon upon expertly intuitive storytelling, just as Zemeckis always has, rather than pontification, let alone speeches.  It has but one speech, in fact, and it is short and it is earned; meanwhile, as for its symbols, you can either take or leave them as you like.  In the end, Cast Away affirms the value of life, but admits that it does not, and cannot, tell you why it should.

Score:  10/10

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