In December of 2000, Robert Zemeckis’s survival film Cast Away asked movie audiences to ponder the unthinkable: What if a nightmare set of circumstances left you marooned on a desolate, uninhabited island, cut off from the world, each day reduced to a primitive struggle to maintain the basic necessities of life? Could you survive? Could you measure up to the resourcefulness displayed by stranded FedEx employee Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), who perseveres for four years until he makes it back to civilization?
Twenty years later, we’re living the unthinkable; the global pandemic, with its daily challenges of remaining safe from a deadly virus, has turned us into homebound versions of Noland, hunkered down, trying to survive, and restricted from intimate contact with friends and loved ones (though unlike Noland, we do have our smartphones, social media, and a number of streaming platforms on which to binge hundreds of TV shows).
With so many of us coping with enforced isolation, Cast Away feels even more resonant today than it did in 2000. In fact, the film has a lot to teach us about staying resilient amidst seemingly hopeless circumstances by living one day at a time, since, as Noland observes, “You never know what tomorrow may bring.” To honor its 20th anniversary, we take a look at why Cast Away is the perfect film for today’s socially distanced times.
When we first meet Noland, he’s in a Moscow warehouse, lecturing a group of FedEx employees on how to meet deadlines more efficiently. Called away on a sudden work emergency to Malaysia on Christmas night, Chuck slips his long-time girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt) an engagement ring, kisses her goodbye, and promises that he’ll be “right back.”
Instead, in a terrifying sequence, his FedEx plane goes down in the Pacific, and Noland is the lone survivor. When his life raft bumps ashore on a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere, he realizes his life has irrevocably changed.
In 2017, Hanks told THR Actors Roundtable “I wanted to examine the concept of four years of hopelessness, in which you have none of the requirements for living — food, water, shelter, fire and company… I was reading an article about FedEx, and I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day. And I just thought, ‘What happens if that goes down?'”
There’s something profound about watching Noland, a man once ruled by clocks and deadlines, take the first step towards his own survival by making a fire – something he likely hasn’t had to do since boyhood. For anyone stuck at home and feeling sorry for themselves during the pandemic, it’s a poignant reminder of the film’s central theme of discovering what’s truly important in life. Hanks’s chest-thumps and primitive shouts are an inspiration to anyone looking to reconnect with their inner caveman.
As Hanks told ABC News in ‘06, “Once Chuck has figured out how to stay alive, his battle is no longer against the elements, it’s about desperation. It’s about… loneliness that is very different from being home on a Saturday night with nothing to do.”
Those of us too afraid to visit a dentist’s office while the coronavirus rages might not want to duplicate Noland’s barbaric solution to DIY tooth extraction, using an unorthodox rock and ice-skate-blade combo with no numbing agent. The takeaway here: when you’re way out of your comfort zone, you’ve got to adapt, and quickly.
Noland escapes his captivity on a homemade raft with a jury-rigged “sail” fashioned from the detritus of a portable toilet that came in with the tide. A testament not only to his ingenuity and resourcefulness, but his will to survive at all costs.
Noland didn’t have to just survive physically, he had to survive mentally as well. That meant having a friend he could confide in – even if it was an inanimate object. Wilson the deflated volleyball, unfairly snubbed by the Oscars, helps Noland maintain his sanity amidst the endless monotony… another excellent parallel to our current predicament. The scene in which Noland loses Wilson after a storm is the most wrenching in the film.
In this wonderfully written monologue, Noland looks back on his ordeal and reaffirms the inner strength and determination needed to keep going when all appears lost. It’s something to keep in mind in present times as a glimmer of hope – in the form of a vaccine – appears over the horizon.
Cast Away’s tale of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe struck a powerful nerve, grossing $429 million worldwide. In early March of 2020, Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, were the first major celebrities to contract COVID-19 while on location in Australia. Hanks’ grace, calm, and honesty soothed the world during a fraught time. Chuck Noland would have been proud.
Cast Away was released in theaters on December 22, 2000.
Thumbnail image by ©20th Century Fox Film Corp.