Leaving girlfriend Kelly (Hunt) behind just before Christmas, FedEx engineer Chuck Noland (Hanks) sets off troubleshooting. Disaster strikes when his plane comes down and Noland is washed up on an uninhabited shore. Bereft of modern comforts, Noland attempts to cope with his prison of solitude.
The first collaboration between Robert Zemeckis and Tom Hanks since the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump (1994), Cast Away has been hyped as an Oscar contender, but actually aims for something more than an overly emotional prestige picture.
Never opting for the cheap laugh or quick sentiment, Zemeckis tackles all sorts of desert island risks, making a minimalist premise and (for the most part) solitary actor play credibly over a two-hour-plus storyline.
After an unremarkable let's-meet-the-characters introduction, Zemeckis pulls out all the stops, creating a terrifying plane crash, mostly through a hand-held depiction of Noland's terror. Once Noland is alone in his tropical hell, what follows is expertly sustained, wordless moviemaking.
If the film involes all sorts of Robinson Crusoe-styled cliches - the initial lack of hunting skills, the inability to generate fire - they are elevated by Hanks' ability to convince and Zemeckis' commitment to putting the character through the mill: stones rip into the soles of Noland's naked feet; the discovery of the aircraft's drowned pilot; and, most gut-wrenching of all, a DIY act of dentistry involving an ice skate that is already a strong contender for most squirm-inducing scene of the year.
Occasionally Zemeckis' grip falters - a subtle hint of a suicide attempt is later bowlderised by blatant spelling out. But what stops the good becoming great, however, is the lack of emotional wallop on Noland's return to the mainland - they don't work hard enough in making us care about the characters, so our sense of investment in the relationship is dulled.
To his credit, Zemeckis never cops out by cutting back to middle America to follow rescue attempts or grieving relatives. Hanks commands attention throughout and, as Noland starts talking to a washed-up volleyball (dubbed Wilson after its brand name), makes a relationship between an increasingly unhinged man and a plastic sports object not only believable, but bizarrely moving.
Although hesitant and unsatisfying on the mainland, Cast Away delivers where it counts - a powerful depiction of a man marooned. Thoroughly absorbing.