Some filmmakers seem to be doing multi-tasking lately. Barry Levinson did it with "Sphere", where his "Wag The Dog" was done on a break from "Sphere". Robert Zemeckis ended up filming the horrid "What Lies Beneath" between what I think is actually one of his best works and certainly one of the year's very best. "Cast Away" is not a perfect film, but at it's best moments it is a marvelous, moving picture that is held together by a brilliant performance from Tom Hanks.
Before I go further into the review, I will probably talk about some details of the plot, but since the trailer has already given away more than it should have, I will go forward with the discussion. The film revolves around Chuck Noland(Hanks) a Fedex troubleshooter who, as we open the film, find organizing a Russian outpost, coaching them on the importance of time. He returns home, pleased to be able to put "time" aside to spend Christmas with his girlfriend Kelly (Helen Hunt). But, mid-dinner, he finds himself called away to Malaysia. The plane ride suddenly gets into trouble with a storm and, in one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen in quite a while, the plane crashes into the ocean.
Chuck barely makes it out, and finds himself washed up on an island in the middle of nowhere. And at that point, the film begins a portion that, in the hands of different artists, may not have worked. But, with Zemeckis and especially Hanks, it's easily the best part of the movie. The middle piece of the movie is all Hanks. Little dialogue or music, and the part that I am most thankful for - no cutting to what's going on back home to break the experience.
Hanks is a master of saying little to get us into the emotions that the character is feeling. Hanks makes all of the small victories that the character has during his stay on the island (4 years) that we can't help but root for him to stay balanced and keep going. The ways that he is able to find what he needs are done in a way that is believable and fascinating to watch. He even makes the relationship with a volleyball that washes ashore (he names it "Wilson") from becoming silly - it even becomes rather moving. Hanks is so good during these scenes, I could certainly watch a day-long cut of the film without likely getting bored of it.
I will say that the third act brings Chuck home, but I won't say too much more than that (the trailers have already told you much more). This third act I felt was initially awkward; the island scenes were so impressive that I'd felt satisfyed. It's a great, soulful cinematic meal - I was "full", but the movie asks if you're still hungry. The intital scenes in this piece are passable; I liked how the movie was wrapped up, but was so engaged and entertained by the island scenes, this return to reality as we know it seemed less thrilling, even though I liked how it all was eventually resolved.
It's amazing that "Cast Away" and "What Lies Beneath" were done by the same director. I walked out of "Lies" angry that I had lost two hours of what Chuck Noland cares about so much at the begining of "Cast Away": time. Walking out of "Cast Away", I found myself thrilled with nearly every minute - it's a journey that I certainly am thinking about taking again.
And, as an additional side note that I'm writing months later as I sit down to write the DVD review, I did take the journey again. I saw "Cast Away" several times in the theater, something that's rare for me. Some people seemed to dislike the picture, but "Cast Away" has earned a place as one of my favorite films, at least of the past several years.
VIDEO: 20th Century Fox offers a near-flawless transfer of "Cast Away" that stands up to some of their best work, such as "The Beach". Sharpness and detail are fantastic, although the front and end sections don't quite have the same depth as the scenes on the island. The scenes on the island occasionally have a three-dimensional feel to them, with crystal clarity and strong detail.
The only problem that I really had was a couple of tiny stray instances of edge enhancement. If those had been avoided, I really wouldn't have found anything to complain about. I saw one or two speckles on the print - but that's it - literally one or two. No pixelation or any other flaws were spotted. There seemed to be the slightest hint of grain to the very opening and ending, but it was that way in the theater, and it seemed even more minimal here.
"Cast Away" has completely natural colors, as the intention was obviously to have a realistic depiction of what it was like on the island. There are some beautiful shots with gorgeous blue skies, but at the same time, there's also some scenes that have an overcast look. The greens of the scenery on the island also show through wonderfully, offering natural and sometimes rich color. It's excellent work from the studio, and although it does say the film is 2.35:1 on the back of the box, it's actually 1.85:1 (oops!)
SOUND: "Cast Away" is offered in both Dolby Digital-EX and DTS-ES. "Cast Away" was up for an Oscar for best sound along with "U-571" and "Gladiator". Although "Gladiator" won ("U-571" should have.), "Cast Away"'s audio deserves to stand in the catagory with the other, louder, two. The film's sound design is a masterfully subtle effort on the part of Randy Thom (who also has quite a bit to say in the commentary) and crew.
The film's only traditionally "agressive" moment is the plane crash that strands Chuck on the island. The scene goes from rather quiet to a roar, with heavy surround use and bass. The scene is easily one of the most terrifying that I've seen in the past couple years, and still gets a jump out me when the situation very suddenly changes for the worse.
The island scenes do not have any score, so, according to the commentary, the sounds of the island had to play the "score" during these scenes. Subtle details such as waves crashing, winds coming through the trees and other layers of realistic island sounds surround the viewer. It's a credit to the sound team that there is such a convincing feel to the sounds - they envelop you and feel real - never overdoing it, never distracting.
Again, Alan Silvestri's score does not play during the island scenes, but when it does come back into the picture in the last section, I must say it's one of the more elegant, emotional scores I've heard in a while. I'm glad that the filmmakers decided to not have score during the island scenes - although it probably would never have worked, the scenes work 100% better without it and it really works wonderfully coming back in after the island scenes.
Audio quality was excellent throughout the movie. The island sounds and subtle details seemed clear, smooth and clean. Dialogue also remained very crisp and easily heard, with no problems or concerns.
MENUS:: Fox has prepared wonderful menus for "Cast Away", with a main menu overlooking the ocean - there's also fantastic film-themed transitions between the main and sub-menus; most of the sub-menus are animated, as well. The animation is excellent and the menus provide a perfect introduction to the film.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Robert Zemeckis, sound designer Randy Thom, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston, cinematographer Don Burgess and co-visual effects supervisor Carey Villegas. This is a very well-edited track consisting of interviews and other audio footage; sometimes it is not directed towards what is going on on-screen, but mostly it is focused towards the specific sequence.
I honestly was not looking forward to another Zemeckis commentary after the track for "What Lies Beneath", which seemed to consist mainly of him being pleased about having both Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford star in his movie. This track is far more interesting, as the director and crew are able to go in-depth and discuss the obstacles - and there were plenty in a film this major and an idea this unusual - and occasionally stop to analyze the story and performance of Hanks. Ralston provides some very interesting tidbits about the effects you don't see - there's a lot of visual effects shots in the film that wouldn't otherwise be known. Also fascinating to listen to is sound designer Thom, who not only discusses the challenges of capturing the smallest sound details (waves sliding into shore, etc) of the island, but also talks about his opinions on sound design in general.
It's an excellent track, and although the comments from the different participants had to be edited together, the track flows very well, and there's not really any distracting pauses of silence on the track. A very good commentary worth listening to.
Making Of "Cast Away": Occasionally, one of the "making of" documentaries that airs on HBO is actually well-done and informative. This is one of those instances. A giant production that went across different countries (Russia, the island, different US locations), we follow the cast and crew as they shoot various sequences. In-between these instances, there are interviews with the cast&crew as well as some additional behind-the-scenes footage. The interviews do start off talking about the story as all of these documentaries do, but the interviews gradually begin to focus on the experiences (we see a behind-the-scenes version of how the ocean scenes right after the crash were shot) of overcoming the obstacles involved in the making of the film.
S.T.O.P: Surviving As A Cast Away: This featurette has interviews from the survival specialists who took screenwriter William Broyles, Jr. on a course to inspire him for the screenplay - to get details that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of. It's really interesting to hear the group discuss what people go through who are stranded in similar locations and what they must do in this situation if they are to make it through. Although this is labeled a "featurette", it's lengthy enough that I'd consider it a "documentary" and well worth a look.
The Island: The location scout for "Cast Away" discusses here all of the islands that were "auditioned" for the island as well as why the particular island was chosen for the movie. There's also a discussion about the inhabitants of the island who welcomed the crew and sat down for ceremonies with them as well as let them watch the filming. There's also a tour of the "production village" that was built, which is fairly amazing for something that had to be built on a remote island. Again, a fairly lengthy piece that's more "documentary" than mere "featurette".
Wilson: Life and Death of A Hollywood Extra: This is a cute featurette that talks about the event that inspired Wilson's inclusion in to the film as well as some behind-the-scenes footage of Wilson on-set.
Charlie Rose Interviews Tom Hanks: Although the image quality seems a little off, this is a very engaging interview with Hanks, who discusses the hows and whys of "Cast Away", discussing character and story, as well as what it was like to go through the production steps. The interview does go off in different directions at one point as Hanks discusses "Saving Private Ryan" and other details, but he then comes back to "Cast Away" discussion.
Special Effects Vignettes: Here, visual effects supervisor Ken Ralston and co-supervisor Carey Villegas discuss the special effects involved in several sequences. These short vignettes take us step-by-step in the creation of the visual effects, from the early takes and adding layer-by-layer towards the final product. The scenes covered are: "The Plane Crash", "The Island Revealed", "Climbing The Mountain Top", "The Wind Changes Direction On The Island", "The Raft Goes Over a Big Wave", "The Whale".
Storyboard Galleries: Galleries for "Losing Wilson", "Raft Escape" and "Plane Crash". The galleries first offer an image of a storyboard with a filmed still image next to it for several pages. At the end of the galleries, there is the option to watch the storyboards in comparison to a moving version of that scene.
Conceptual Artwork: Galleries of: "Raft Illustrations", "Raft Sequence", "Day Rowing", "Fishing", "Night Whales", "Day Whales".
Illustrations and Storyboards: "Chuck's Raft", "Opening Sequence", "Raft Assembly" and "Raft Launch".
Behind-The-Scenes Image Gallery: A moving gallery of behind-the-scenes images from the film with the score playing in the background.
TV Spots: 10 TV Spots for the film are included.
Trailers: 2 Trailers are included. The full trailer for the film was subject to a good deal of controversy as many felt that it gave away way too much. While I agree that it gives away far more than they should, it certainly didn't ruin the experience of watching the movie. The teaser trailer (trailer A here) is far simpler and actually, more effective. Either way, if you want to go in fresh, don't watch the trailers before watching the film. Since they're on disc two and the film's on disc one, viewers probably won't anyway, but this is just a warning. Both trailers are full-frame and Dolby 2.0.
Final Thoughts: I simply loved "Cast Away" - I think Hanks gives another phenomenal performance that should have won best actor. It's a film that I've watched several times now, and I can easily see myself watching the film many times more with Fox's terrific new DVD. The film's 2 DVD set provides excellent audio/video quality and wonderful extras. "Cast Away" washes into stores on 6/12/2001, and I think it's definitely a stellar, must-see DVD. I also have to give praise to 20th Century Fox, who, in the past year or so, has turned themselves into one of, if not the best, studios in terms of DVD production.