Surprisingly, Tom Hanks did not win an Oscar for Best Actor for this role. The man only carried the film, was essentially in every scene, transformed his body midway through the shooting schedule, and played a character who was face-to-face with not only his own death but the loss of his sanity. I take nothing away from Philadelphia or Forrest Gump, but Castaway was an incredible Tom Hanks role.
There is nothing adventurous or exciting about being Robinson Crusoe, spending four-plus years alone on island with no hope of rescue and the impending fear of your own agonizing death.
Tom Hanks plays Chuck, a FedEx systems engineer who is obsessed about his job. He doesn’t provide the time to his relationship with Kelly, who is clearly the love of his life, but his life revolves around fixing systems problems with FedEx locations around the word. On Christmas, his beeper sounds and he leaves Kelly, jumps on a plane, and flies to Malaysia. The plane never makes it there, crashing somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. He is the only survivor. Lucky Chuck. The plane crash scene is quite a spectacular film effect. It’s a wonder that Chuck got out alive, and then didn’t drown in the storm. Definitely a Christmas not to remember.
When he makes it to the island, we get a view of Chuck as an overweight and somewhat awkward guy in this sandy and watery environment. For the next four-plus years he must adapt to the island existence.
Hanks was needed to gain weight to his normally slim frame prior to the 1998 film start. The first section of film was completed, with Chuck mastering fire and emptying most of the FedEx packages that washed up on the island beach from the plane and finding uses for the package contents. The final scene for that first section was Chuck using one of the ice skates from a package to knock out one of his abscessed teeth. Skates have many uses.
The production shut down for about a year. In the meantime, director Robert Zemeckis made another film. Tom Hanks lost the extra weight and slimmed down to a weight and appearance of someone who would have been on a similar island diet. The physical change was astounding. He moves with agility and ease over the rocks and through the water, much different from the Chuck who first arrived on the island.
Chuck is now an experience fisherman, can expertly start a fire and swings a steady homemade axe. His life consists of saving water, finding food and basic survival, that’s it. He has nothing to help him get off the island, or even improve his life. He has been inventive about using the various items from the packages he opened aiding in his survival.
Chuck’s job was to get customer packages safety to their destination, not open them. Imagine the internal conflict. One of those island packages will remain unopened, the one embossed with wings on it. At the beginning of the film, a package like this was sent from a Texas woman to his philandering husband in Moscow. Chuck doesn’t know any of this, he just keeps the package unopened. It is a symbol of his life before the crash, and the wings make an impression on him.
Chuck also has a watch that Kelly gave him, it was her father’s watch. It is a pocket watch that opens and Chuck has placed a photo of Kelly in it. Throughout those four years on the island he has the watch open so he can see her face. And during this time, the picture begins to crack and fade from the weather.
Meanwhile, Chuck has invented a friend on the island, Wilson, a volleyball found in one of the packages. While trying to master starting a fire, Chuck injured his hand. Angrily he throws objects including the volleyball, placing his full bloody hand on the ball, leaving an imprint that resembles a face. Wilson is the name of the company making the volleyball, hence the name. Chuck has embellished Wilson with hair, and talks to him. This was a clever device by William Broyles, Jr., who wrote the screenplay, as a method for Hanks to share this thoughts through dialogue. Wilson doesn’t talk back, this isn’t The Twilight Zone, but Chuck wonders what Wilson thinks. This certainly makes the viewer wonder the condition of Chuck’s mental state.
The third act of the film is focused on Chuck’s escape from the island, which is made possible when part of a portable fiberglass latrine washes up on the island. It is hinged and Chuck gets the idea it could be a sail on a raft. He needs something to help get him over the breakwater into the open sea, and this helps him to finally get out into the ocean, free from the strong surf.
A powerful storm tears apart the raft, and blows away his sail, like wings in the wind. Nice symbolism.
Days adrift, Chuck nearly succumbs to the heat and lack of water. As he lays unconscious, Wilson becomes untethered from his place on the raft and drifts away. A whale blows spray on Chuck who wakes and realizes Wilson is gone. Chuck falls in the water and tries to swim to Wilson bobbing on the waves, but is weak and can’t reach the ball. Chuck has a choice, try and get Wilson and probably drown, or grab the tether and stay with the raft.
Chuck is distraught in losing Wilson. It reminds him of everything else he has lost. Wilson was his faithful companion, and now Chuck can’t even save his friend. We might believe that Chuck has totally given up, mentally and physically. He’s in bad shape.
This mysterious whale comes around again, blowing spray on a barely alive Chuck, just as a cargo ship passes by. You think it might not stop but it sounds it’s horn and crewmen on top see Chuck’s weak, outstretched hand.
The film skips ahead four weeks. Chuck is now clean-shaven and heading for Memphis where FedEx is based and where Chuck and Kelly lived. Chuck is reintroduced to life, he’s a celebrity, but the parties and celebrations are a bit much for him.
But, there’s a problem. Kelly. She has mostly moved on, married and with a young child. News of his reemergence has flipped her life as well. Arrangements are made for her to meet with Chuck, but at the last minute her husband appears. He asks Chuck for some time, so Kelly can sort things out.
That night, Chuck goes to her house. It is evident that even though she moved on, part of her has not. She has saved every bit of news on his crash and rescue, and saved his old jeep. She gives him the key and watches, her heart in her throat, as he pulls away in the rain. She calls after him and runs to his Jeep as he comes back. She kiss him with her all her soul and gets in the Jeep, as if to run away with him. As they look at each other dripping wet, they both know that it won’t work, their lives must go on apart. As much as it hurts, it is for the best. You feel Chuck’s heart breaking. How much more loss can the man endure.
With nowhere else to turn, Chuck seeks solace with Stan, his friend and his FedEx colleague. Chuck shares his story about Kelly, but also more that the viewer does not know. It is revealed that Chuck had made plans to kill himself on the island. He feared getting sick or injured and dying an agonizing death, so he felt that if he killed himself he could avoid it and have some control over something. As he recounts his own life he suddenly realizes that Stan lost his wife to cancer during the four years and Chuck wasn’t there to help him get through it. He understands that Stan had to face his own agonizing days following his wife’s death, but he made it. At that point, Chuck realizes he can be dead like he’s been the past four years or start breathing, and breathe every day. He can rebound from loss. This is something he can control.
In the final sequence in the film, Chuck is delivering that FedEx package he never opened, the one with the wings that he brought back on the raft. He goes to the woman’s ranch in Texas. On the arched gate, one of the two names has been removed from when that gate was shown at the beginning of the film. The name Bettina remains. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Chuck knocks on the door but there is no answer. He writes a note that says the package saved his life. He leaves the note with the package and drives to the end of her road where it meets the highway. In front of him are three other roads to take. As he is looking at the map, a truck drives up to the road he just came from. A vivacious woman asks him if he is lost. If ever there was a lost soul, it’s Chuck. He says he isn’t sure where he’s going. She tells him where each of the roads go and wishes him well. As she drives off, he sees the imprint of the wings on the tailgate of her truck. Bettina. As he watches her drive away, the camera moves in and you see an interested look on Chuck’s face and a thin smile. Hope.
Will Chuck start a new life with Bettina? That’s where the film ends.
Chuck was a guy who lived his life but didn’t really live his life. His first priority was the reward and success he got from his job. He was so committed that he left a Christmas dinner to fly around the world. He didn’t admit to it at the time but he took for granted his relationship with Kelly because he was in no hurry to marry her, and what they had was great, just like it was.
Maybe in his mind he felt there would always be time. You can’t predict when your plane is going to crash, and you might not always have a friend like Wilson. Chuck was right about one thing – you have to breathe, and keep doing it.