Cast Away

Something we’ve long suspected turns out to be true: You really COULD put Tom Hanks on a desert island, film it, and wind up with an entertaining movie. He’s JUST THAT GOOD.

I’m being facetious, but the fact is, 60 of “Cast Away’s” 140 minutes feature no humans besides the genial Mr. Hanks — and that hour is the best part of the movie. You put him back with the people, and things get weak.

Hanks — who has now officially perfected the role of Everyman — plays Chuck Noland, a bigwig in the Federal Express organization whose life is dictated by the clock. Everything is on time, on schedule, and according to plan. He travels so much with his work that he barely has time for his girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt, making literally her fourth film appearance in two months), though their relationship is strong and mature nonetheless. (Kudos to director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles, Jr., for painting this crucial detail in just a few short strokes.)

On Christmas Eve, Chuck is called away on business, and after a truly harrowing plane crash — the air-and-ocean equivalent of the marvelous train-wreck sequence in “The Fugitive” — he finds himself the sole survivor of the disaster, and alone on an island in the Pacific.

Thus begins a remarkable hour of filmmaking. Putting anyone by himself for that long is risky, even if the guy is as likable as Tom Hanks. Zemeckis ups the ante, though, by including no underscore music and very little dialogue. Chuck isn’t a guy who amusingly talks to himself; he speaks only when it would be logical to do so. Much of the time, he is silent, figuring out how to build shelter, start a fire, nurse his wounds.

FedEx packages from the plane crash wash up on shore, providing him with the elements of a few necessities (he uses an ice skate blade as a knife, for example). The FedEx angle in the plot is truly ingenious, as it not only provides a schedule-oriented contrast to Chuck’s timeless isloation on the island, but it also allows for things like ice skates to show up without seeming like incredible conveniences.

One of the FedEx packages includes a volleyball, which Chuck names Wilson (after the ball manufacturer) and on which he paints a face with his own blood. Wilson becomes Chuck’s only friend — a pet, really — and as loony as that sounds, nothing could be more logical in that context. Chuck needs to connect with someone, and the volleyball gives form to what would have otherwise been an imaginary friend; it’s likely Wilson preserves Chuck’s sanity (more or less: He does argue with the ball a few times). My friend commented that the volleyball should get a Best Supporting Actor nomination and in this bleak year of filmmaking, I’m inclined to agree. (The ball showed more life than Freddie Prinze Jr. does in any of his movies, for example.)

As the trailers for “Cast Away” have already told you, Chuck gets off the island. After four years there — during which time he undergoes an extreme physical transformation that alone will probably get Hanks an Oscar nomination — he finds a way back to civilization. And that’s when, the film would have us believe, his REAL struggle begins. How do you pick up the pieces of your life when as far as everyone is concerned, your life ended four years ago?

Chuck and Kelly have a very good scene together, tightly written and well acted, that elicits some emotion. Aside from that, we really just see a lot of Chuck looking at things we take for granted, like ice cubes and cigarette lighters, and not taking them for granted anymore. We are told, in so many words, that sometimes you just have to keep going and never give up, because you never know what the tide will bring in the next day.

Chuck’s eyes are distant here, evidence of a profoundly traumatic experience and a reminder that Tom Hanks, aside from being a guy we really like, is also a guy who is a very sensitive actor. Unfortunately, there is not enough surrounding Chuck’s eyes to give the experience he’s been through much resonance.

In an instance of none-too-subtle symbolism, Chuck winds up at a crossroads. What will he do next? What would YOU do, if you were essentially reborn and got to start over again? “Cast Away” aims at providing insight into these and other weighty issues, and winds up scoring a direct hit … a little way off from the bullseye. Maybe Tom Hanks should have stayed on that island. Things only got worse when he came home.

B+ (; PG-13, two or three very mild profanities, some intensity and blood.)