Cast Away: Is there a god?

in Reviews

Two viewings of a Tom Hanks film prompt Pissed-off Toff – more pissed-off than ever in this so-called ‘lockdown’ – to mull further over the most important question we face.

This is a film that has been haunting me ever since I watched it, twice, a fortnight ago. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that the freeview channels showed it two times in a row; because the story of one man’s struggle for survival on an uninhabited island has more than a few parallels with the ‘lockdown’ that has shaped the last ten months of our lives and that has, surely, prompted us to question what it is we live for.

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The first ten minutes of Cast Away – filmed on the island of Monuriki and released in 2000 – briefly establish the background to the Robinson Crusoe story that forms the basis of the movie. Chuck Nolan, acted here by the excellent Tom Hanks, is a slightly overweight logistics manager for FedEx. Happily co-habiting with his girlfriend Kelly, played by Helen Hunt, he flies round the world sorting out one problem after another, with never a moment’s rest. Not that that bothers him. He’s too busy even to think about it. He is, in short, a decent specimen of that creature of our time: homo economicus.

On a return journey to the God-fearing city of Memphis, his aeroplane is caught in a storm and crashes into the sea, killing everyone but Chuck, who regains consciousness the next morning to find himself marooned on a tiny uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This establishes the existential question which, I think, lies at the heart of the film: Is there a god? The answer, suggested but never spelled out over the next hour or so, is grim and gripping, in equal measure.

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Used to a life in which every need is catered for, Chuck Nolan now stands alone on an empty beach in his sodden Christmas jumper with its jaunty Nordic collar motif. There are no luscious native girls in bikinis; no freshly-caught lobsters being grilled under palm trees; no chilled cocktails waiting in tastefully decorated tourist huts. Under a leaden sky, there is just the odd crab scuttling over the sand, the immensity of the sea, and absolute solitude as distant waves crash over the coral reefs encircling the island.

Here is a problem that goes beyond logistics. But a rescue team will be on the way, surely? So Chuck marks out HELP in huge letters on the sand. For liquid, he cracks open fallen coconuts and drinks the juice inside them. Climbing to the top of the mountain at the centre of this small volcanic outcrop, he sees nothing but water. Later, the bloated body of the dead aeroplane pilot is washed ashore. Chuck takes the shoes off the corpse, cuts the ends off them to fit his own feet, and buries the body. “So that’s it,” he says aloud. 

There is no ceremony, no ritual, no meaning. Just nothing. And as he looks out over the ocean while the moon rises over the distant breakers, he might be the only man alive in a world without God.

Then, far away on the horizon, a light shines out from a search ship. Chuck yells and shouts. He jumps into the rubber dingy which brought him here, and paddles furiously. But the waves are too powerful and throw him back on to the submerged coral, badly injuring his leg; and with a tropical storm raging, he staggers back onto the island, here to take shelter in a small dark cave where, as he collapses exhausted, his torch soon dies. The morning after, he opens one eye. His predicament is for real. He is all alone in the middle of nowhere.

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So far only a few days have passed. For drinking water, there is a small spring in the cave which is now his home. For food, there is the flesh of coconuts and the raw gunge that emerges from the limbs of crabs; a source of nutrition so foul that it prompts him to learn how to make fire, the hard neanderthal way, so as to roast the crab meat. Opening various FedEx parcels that have been washed up from the plane, he finds a Wilson volleyball, onto which he daubs a Homer-Simpson-like face with his own blood. From now on, ‘Wilson’ is his constant companion … which for us, the viewers, is convenient, since it means that the marooned Chuck has someone to talk to; so we have not just the sound of the sea, but dialogue.

Now, still only a few weeks or months into the story, a bad tooth, hinted at during the Christmas party that preceded the plane crash, starts playing up. “Boy! What I wouldn’t give for a dentist!” he remarks to Wilson … reminding me that the last time I went to a dentist, ten years ago, the experience was so traumatic that on leaving the surgery, I walked straight into a lamp-post and haven’t returned since; and now really must do so, but cannot summon up the courage; so that I am toying with the idea of never seeing a dentist again for as long as I live. Hanks is made of sterner stuff, however, and in an agonising scene in his cave, he knocks out his infected tooth and faints with pain, his head crashing to the ground only inches away from the fire that he now keeps constantly lit.

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Four years later, as the on-screen caption informs us, Chuck Nolan is still there. He has lost a lot of weight. He has a long beard and long straggling hair. Indeed, in order to make this movie, Hanks first put on weight for the opening scenes, and then spent a year losing it and growing a beard before filming could be resumed. He now wears just a tatty loincloth around his midriff. And – marvellous detail – he moves in a wild, feral way, his face jerking from left to right as he sallies forth in search of prey. 

Here, we have man in his most primitive state. Wilson, his volleyball companion, has sprouted hair. Has he become a totem? A god, even? Because even though it is never spelt out, I speculate that the real theme of this film is: Does God exist? And as Chuck looks out over the barrier reef and the endlessly crashing waves to the vast sea beyond … as the absolute indifference of nature and his own complete aloneness are made plain … the implied answer would seem to be: No. At some stage, too, we see a flashback to the time when Chuck attempted, unsuccessfully, to hang himself from a cross-shaped tree at the top of the Golgotha that dominates the island. No death and resurrection for him …

There is, however, an epiphany when a sheet of solid plastic washed up on the beach prompts the realisation that if he doesn’t get off this island soon, he will die, alone. Making ropes out of strips of fibre torn off every last tree, he constructs a raft with the plastic sheet for a sail … and rowing to save his life, he somehow gets past the huge waves breaking over the coral reef, and is out in the open sea.

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What follows – and typically for this film, there is no sound-track … just silence – is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking sequences of any movie I know.

We see Hanks rowing his raft in the ocean, by day and by night. A whale appears and we see its gleaming back then its huge tail as it dives back down into the sea, before resurfacing and looking at the mariner with a single large, knowing eye. It is an almost divine moment.

A violent storm now arises during which the sail of the raft is blown away. How do they film these things? The next day, as Hanks lies senseless on his largely ruined vessel, the whale appears again. Again, how do they film this? A burst of water emerges from the creature’s spout and lands on Hanks’ back, waking him up. Is this an intentional act on behalf of a thinking being?

Then the lifeless Wilson falls off the raft, drifts away, and Hanks can’t catch him. Is he letting go of a false god? And in perhaps the most desolate and meaningful shot in the whole film, we see a view of a vast flat ocean, a spectacle of pure nothingness. 

Hanks lies down and sobs … and later, when he is only half-alive and the raft half-sinking, we hear the deep moan of the whale in the sea, before it resurfaces and sprays him again. Intentionally? Presumably so, because a cargo ship is passing. Hanks feebly lifts a hand in the air, the ship’s horn sounds, and he is saved. 

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There, for me, the film might have ended; and for many a night afterwards, I stayed awake thinking about it. Just as, during this so-called ‘pandemic’, I try to forget my ever-increasing loathing of the clown and his fools who have enslaved us, and attempt to focus on greater questions … so that I wonder whether some form of pantheism might be hinted at here.

But although the film undoubtedly raises such questions, it shies away from answering them, and carries us back to the world we know, which now seems strange to Hanks. At the end of a party given as part of the process of ‘bringing him back to life’, as a Fed-Ex man puts it, he surveys the tables laden with uneaten delicacies so casually wasted. He picks up a gas lighter, and wonders at the miraculous ease with which fire is created. Words, too, have little meaning, and easy platitudes are lost on him.

In the meantime, his wife Kelly has remarried and has a child. She has ‘moved on’, to quote another phrase from the film … and with this, we return, I’m afraid, to Hollywood. “I knew that I had to stay alive,” says Tom Hanks to Helen Hunt. (I can’t work out whether I like her or whether she slightly annoys me. But at any rate, we are spared Julia Roberts.) 

Anyhow: “I knew I had to stay alive. Somehow. Even though there was no reason to hope. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And now here I am. Back in Memphis. I know what I have to do. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. And who knows what the tide will bring?” And later on, after Hanks has delivered the one FedEx package he did not open on the tropical island, and with the future an open book, we see him standing at a crossroads in the middle of the vast flat prairie. 

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In the end, this film is perhaps two films. Firstly, it is an astounding performance by Hanks, and a powerful exploration of man’s place in the world. And secondly, it’s a bog-standard transatlantic self-help product. But the first bit is so good that you should watch it. Plus, Tom Hanks strikes me as being a thoroughly decent chap. Apparently he collects typewriters; just as I collect solid-gold pens. Neither of which would be of much use on an uninhabited tropical island in a godless world …

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