During the summer of 1994, while most of the world was greeting Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump with dewy eyes and outstretched arms, this critic was grinning his fool head off at a very different tale of a lost, lone hero. While a featherweight Tom Hanks bumbled his lobotomized way through misty boomer memories, the late Brandon Lee was destroying villains in a truer-than-life urban phantasmagoria, as if affording the cinematic universe a fair balance. Of course, Alex Proyas' The Crow had little more at its core than cold vengeance, but somewhere amid all the firearms, torture and executions lurked scary emotional truths about love and loss. Unlike the dishonest tripe of Gump, The Crow offered hard, direct sensuousness, inspiring a reverie wherein Lee's undead warrior might steal into Zemeckis' crisp digital world to unleash his dark rage on Hanks' little retarded monkey -- or at least bitch-slap him.
With that in mind, consider the same critic crawling dejectedly into a screening of Cast Away six years later, braced for a saccharine reteaming of Hanks and Zemeckis, resigned to a long night of scrubbing the sap out of his hair. The lights go down, the music builds and quirky scenes of postindustrial madness fill the screen, centered on the modern miracle known around the world as FedEx. Hmm. Not bad so far. Relaxing a little. Pulse resuming a healthy rhythm. Often it takes but a few minutes to figure whether a filmmaker is on, and Zemeckis -- who shamelessly illustrated just how embarrassingly off he can be with What Lies Beneath earlier this year -- seems to be in labor-of-love mode. Literally, as we'll soon discover.
"We never, ever commit the sin of losing track of time!" Hanks bellows at a team of doubtful Russians, the recipients of his FedEx pep talk. As Chuck Noland, Hanks is a cheerleader for zinging inhuman efficiency, circling the globe faster than his own packages, ominously warning that it takes only a few tiny setbacks "and pretty soon we're the U.S. Postal Service." No slam to that fine institution per se, Chuck's fervor for his well-oiled machine -- he's Elmer Gantry at the pulpit of overnight delivery -- bespeaks an all-too-common disturbance. The poor man is pleased as punch to reward an Eastern-bloc child's corporate allegiance with good old American fun-fun-fun (in the peculiarly outdated form of an Elvis Presley CD), but his own life is all surface, no substance.
Such a man needs love, so here we find Helen Hunt as Kelly, his main squeeze. It's holiday time in Ohio, and -- like Kevin Spacey, Mel Gibson and several casting directors before him -- Hanks realizes that Hunt represents a towering standard of womanhood, all a man could ever desire. So he does his double-dog darnedest to meet the expectations and obligations of romance, even conceding to dine with mildly unpleasant relatives harboring probing agendas. Like any man who really, really wants something, however, Chuck is about to be battered into total vulnerability, ostensibly because he's uptight and needs to learn valuable lessons about the preciousness of life. But we all know he's called away on business and unceremoniously dunked into the South Pacific because we simply don't need another movie about contemporary suburban ennui. We need a vision quest.
Happily, the chunky second act is all about Chuck, alone, sorting out his life from the undesired solace of a desert island, and Zemeckis helms it like a dream. One of the very best tricks in the magic bag of a director is to make a film crew and a lot of technical stuff vanish so that we not only see an environment but feel it, and here Zemeckis succeeds in spades, appealing to our senses with the desperation of crashing waves and merciless sun, as well as the tiny victories of coconut milk and a warm cave. You're probably familiar with that weird way Hanks yells, and that silly sound does indeed echo through this unsexy Blue Lagoon. But in the mute, magical moments of sad reflection and physical comedy -- not unlike work from the silent era -- Hanks poignantly shows us a man being slowly killed so that he may live again. It's a testament to the power of the piece that a half-deflated volleyball delivers a more impassioned performance than either Michelle Pfeiffer or Harrison Ford could muster this year.
For Hanks, who seems to alternate between the lovable goon of Bachelor Party and the heinous self-importance of Philadelphia, Cast Away is a confident step forward. It's no longer Joe Versus the Volcano but the everyman vs. himself, and, finally, the man has delivered a moving, slightly unhappy and ultimately hopeful story in which squishy love takes a backseat to the wondrous whirlwind of life. For a critic prepared to dismiss the movie as Robinson Blew So, this comes as the season's most delightful surprise.